Saratoga County

Saratoga County supervisors tackle COVID-19 pandemic pay issue

Board members say discussion on pandemic pay left them confused
Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig

Categories: News, Saratoga County

SARATOGA COUNTY — Saratoga County supervisors say they want to do the right thing if some “essential” county employees were promised extra pay for reporting to work during the pandemic emergency, but it isn’t yet clear what the right thing to do is.

In a marathon meeting that stretched 3 1/2-hours and in which many of the board members were conferring by telephone while others were in the Ballston Spa meeting room, the county Board of Supervisors voted to send the pay discussion back to the county Human Resources Department.

It was the first time supervisors have met since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered public bodies to meet remotely in an effort to stop spread of the virus, and some supervisors said part of the problem is that the usual board committee meetings that review issues before they go to the board didn’t take place this month.

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Supervisors said that during they discussion, they became more confused about what promises may have been made to county employees, and when the extra pay authorization was withdrawn. They approved a resolution sending the matter back to the county Human Resources Department to be fleshed out with details, including which employees will receive what compensation, and how much it will cost the county.

“We haven’t yet spelled out who is covered and what it will cost the county. Let human resources investigate and come back to the Law and Finance Committee with the details,” said Galway Supervisor Michael Smith.

At issue is what promises were made on behalf of supervisors to county employees who were deemed “essential” and continued to report to work during the pandemic health crisis — about a quarter of the county workforce. Some supervisors believe they should receive the additional pay for a two-week period, others for just one week.

Under a resolution approved by the Board of Supervisors at its March 17 meeting, essential employees were to be paid time-and-a-half for working during the pandemic emergency. Authority to change or end the arrangement, on a week-to–week basis, was delegated to a five-member special committee that included both supervisors and administrators.

Days later, that committee withdrew the extra-money authorization — but that information wasn’t communicated to other county supervisors, and perhaps not to the workers in the county’s three labor unions.

Initial estimates were the arrangement would have cost the county an extra $325,000 per week, if half the workforce was deemed essential. In the end, only about a quarter of the workforce was deemed essential.

County Personnel Director Marcy McNamara on Tuesday said the presidents of the three unions representing county workers were informed the extra compensation was being withdrawn on March 19, though it is unclear when the union workforce learned that information — and some supervisors indicated they didn’t know that until they heard it from McNamara.

Some employees received extra compensation in one paycheck, only to have it withdrawn in the following paycheck, supervisors said.

Since the issue became public and generated controversy in late March, the largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, has agreed that its members will accept extra personal time for working during the pandemic, rather than money. McNamara said there’s an agreement with everyone except one union in the Sheriff’s Department and middle management, who aren’t unionized but generally receive the same benefits as union members. That information also appeared to be news to many supervisors.

“I just want to be fair to the good working employees of Saratoga County,” said Halfmoon Supervisor Kevin Tollisen, who initially proposed all the essential county employees — about 340 people — be paid time-and-a-half for a two-week period, March 16-April 2.

His resolution was voted down following lengthy discussion, but no supervisor said they wanted to take away compensation that had been promised to employees. The county could potentially be sued by one or more unions, supervisors acknowledged before going into an executive session for part of the discussion.

Supervisors said they want to put the issue behind them and focus on addressing the emergency condition in the county, now in place through mid-May.

“It was all relevant [discussion], but obviously it happened during a very difficult time, when employees were working very hard,” said Northumberland Supervisor Bill Peck.

The board approved a resolution by Clifton Park Supervisor Jonathan Schoef to have an outside investigation conducted into how the matter was handled.

The board also passed a resolution disbanding the special committee that was making the compensation decisions. It is being replaced by a pandemic response committee appointed by county board Chairman Preston Allen, R-Day, which is going to look more broadly at the county’s increased expenses and losses of revenue because of the coronavirus.

Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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