Town unlikely to approve back-Hazard Pay for public safety workers

Before delaying a vote, the Select Board leaned against spending ARPA funds on extra pay for some Town personnel who worked through the pandemic.

Above: Town public safety chiefs tried to convince the Select Board to approve special pay for extra hazards that police and fire personnel and their families dealt with earlier in the pandemic. (image cropped from meeting video)

For over 5 months, the Select Board has put off voting on a recommendation to spend $300K to cover Hazard Pay for public safety and certain other personnel’s work during the pandemic.

Last night, the Board was poised to vote against it. After hearing heartfelt arguments about the impact of Covid on firefighters and police officers, members delayed the vote to their next meeting.

Although they agreed to reflect more on the decision, members were clearly still leaning towards nay. They expressed concern about how be fair to all Town employees, including school staff.

As many readers are aware, the Town is entitled to over $3M in federal ARPA funds. The Select Board appointed a committee to solicit feedback and recommend how the Town should apply the funds. Among its recommendations was $300,000 for “Premium Pay for Eligible Town Employees”.

The money was described as a reward to essential staff for hazardous work during pandemic. The ARPA Committee recommended spending the funds on personnel from Police, Fire, Public Works and Facilities. They called for giving $5,000 to each full time employee and $1,000 to each part timer.

ARPA Committee Chair Andrea Hamilton told the Board that the Hazard Pay was one of the top 5 priorities selected by survey participants out of the 16 potential uses. Select Board members asked why the Committee didn’t include other Town personnel who stepped up in different ways. Hamilton noted that staff that worked from home and teachers were ineligible for the special pay under the ARPA guidelines.

Since that meeting, the Board has occasionally voted on some of the ARPA Committee recommendations. (You can see my updated version of the Town’s current ARPA spending status as of last night’s votes here.)

The bonus pay was one of the few items the Board hadn’t tackled until last night. From the start of the discussion it was clear why. Select Board Member Sam Stivers referred to the issue as a “hot potato”.

Stivers, Chair Kathy Cook, and member Lisa Braccio all stated that they have spent time pondering and looking into how to deal with what they saw as a difficult issue. (Stivers and Braccio did research on what other Towns have done and Cook reached out to people whose opinions she respected to talk through the issues.) They noted that other Towns hadn’t seemed to find a fair way to deal with the bonus pay. Most didn’t approve it. Officials from one Town that had paid bonuses told them that it led to internal strife, with no one happy about how it was handled.

For reasons not explained, the Board spoke on Tuesday as though the only staff recommended for the ARPA pay were police and fire personnel. (Public Works personnel were referred to as among the staff that could be unfairly excluded if the bonus pay was approved. No direct reference was made to Facilities workers.)

Stivers opined that if they couldn’t find a way to handle the pay equitably across Town staff, then he would prefer to add the funds to the Tax relief category. Braccio spoke about teachers and volunteers who helped with vaccine clinics. She worried that paying just the two departments would cause morale problems.

Member Andrew Dennington reminded that how other Towns handled the pay was a question he raised in the spring. Given what fellow members reported, he agreed with Stivers and Braccio.

Cook said that she had a hard time leaving out school employees and Youth and Family Services. Once you expand the list, you end up with about 600 employees, then only covering $500 each, or $350 after taxes. That didn’t seem to be worth it.

All four of the Board members* assured that they were appreciative of the risks taken by public safety staff. But they pointed to efforts by all Town employees, including those who worked from home, as going above and beyond during the pandemic.

That was a sentiment that public safety personnel (politely) took issue with. Though they repeatedly said they didn’t want to diminish other employees, the Fire Chief, Police Chief, and firefighters highlighted unique risks and extra stress that their staff and families were subject to in the spring of 2020 while other Town employees were able to isolate or work in safer conditions.

Fire personnel pointed out that unlike some towns, Southborough firefighters also act as paramedics offering ambulance services. Fire Chief Stephen Achilles noted that his firefighters weren’t able to stop treating patients and bringing them to hospitals in ambulances. Staff went into homes and were infected by patients they treated. At the end of shifts, personnel had to doff their clothes when they got home, shower, and separate from their families. They brought Covid home at a time when no one really knew what the virus entailed. Members of the SFD followed with specific examples of extended separations between parents and children. 

Police Chief Ryan Newell said that there was never a question as to whether officers would show up. They went into homes, wrestled people they had to arrest, were spit on, and in close contact with arrested people who they drove in cruisers. Meanwhile, they were seeing stories on the news about police officers dying from the virus.

SFD Lt. Neal Aspesi asked the Board to focus on what it was like in March of 2020 – not what Covid has been like over the past year. He reminded how much uncertainty there was about how the virus could spread and how sick personnel would get. He pointed out that by the time many other Town personnel were back to working in person, vaccines were available.

Members asked some questions about how pay would be handled or pro-rated for personnel that didn’t work throughout the entire pandemic. Braccio discussed the possibility of focusing on a shorter period at the start of the pandemic. But she was still concerned about being fair to teachers, some of whom were infected with Covid. Braccio and Stivers agreed that getting into where to draw lines around timing and which staff to support would get messy. They also noted that even within just the fire and police department different employees had varying levels of risk exposure.

In the end, the speeches pushed Stivers to ask for more time to reflect on the issues. He still didn’t see how to fairly distribute funds, but wanted to figure out if there was an option he had “missed”. With other members still leaning against the spend, Cook said they may just be postponing the inevitable. She advocated making a decision soon.

Expect the vote to be on their November 15th agenda.

*Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski recused herself from the discussion based on being married to a firefighter (although he works for another town).

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John Kendall
26 days ago

As a retired firefighter, I’m a bit biased, however, I’m siding with the Fire Department and Police Department on this issue. During the pandemic, they were the absolute front line. Both departments dealt with the public face to face during the worst of Covid. Several members were put out of work due to becoming Covid positive. They all more than earned the bonus. Give it to them!

John Kendall
25 days ago
Reply to  John Kendall

I forgot to mention…..many employees, such as teachers, worked with students using video classes. You can’t fight a fire or make an arrest using Zoom.

Kelly Roney
21 days ago

It would be interested to know whether any groups of public employees were statistically overrepresented in Covid cases. Since it might violate HIPAA if the town released the stats, this should probably come from the groups themselves.

John Kendall
21 days ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

What do you mean by overrepresented?

Kelly Roney
20 days ago
Reply to  John Kendall

The state has a lot of data about what age groups got Covid, so there’s an average risk. Did public safety employees actually have greater risk than average? How about teachers? With teachers, Zoom classes posed less risk, but what about after classes resumed?
The Zoom aspect is definitely important. A teacher in a classroom with 20 kids would be at higher risk than police and fire personnel, who would mainly be exposed for short periods of time and mainly outdoors, where risks are significantly lower. But there’s Zoom, which is about as risk-free as you can get.

John Kendall
19 days ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

Kelly, I disagree with some of your data. Public safety personnel were at great risk with every encounter. Nobody knew much about Covid. It was a nasty disease, which in the beginning, killed a lot of people. Our firefighters, paramedics, and police officers had numerous encounters with people who were positive. The paramedics had to treat patients face to face, in their homes, and then during transport to the hospital. Yes, teachers had to work in classrooms. But please don’t diminish public safety. Just remember, they deal with everything 24 hours a day

Kelly Roney
18 days ago
Reply to  John Kendall

Just to be clear, John, I don’t have data, and I’d like to. I’d like to find a way of measuring relative risks, and my guesses are just guesses to this point.

Mike Pojani
12 days ago

I can see no reason why the funds allotted are not given to the first responders who provided critical services to the folks of this town during the worst possible situation during the pandemic. As reported many of them were isolated from their families for in some cases a long time. Yet the continue to go above and beyond to protect and serve the folks of this town. As far as the fairness of the distribution of funds go they were the only individuals consistently exposed to covid on and ongoing basis. The teachers remained at home and still got their paychecks although did provide remote learning in some cases. I find it very short sighted to deny the first responders this added income in gratitude for services above and beyond!

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