(Updated at 11:05 a.m. on 1/29/2021) Fairfax County should provide hazard pay to all local government workers, a union that represents more than 2,000 general county employees argues.
The county is currently considering a proposal to provide a one-time $1,500 hazard pay bonus to workers who are at high risk of exposure to COVID-19. Staff say about 4,000 employees would be eligible for the benefit.
However, SEIU Virginia 512 — the Fairfax County government employees’ union — says the bonus should be available to all workers, because they have all taken risks and been forced to adapt so the county can keep providing essential services during the pandemic.
As of yesterday (Wednesday), a petition urging Fairfax County supervisors to extend $1,500 hazard pay bonuses to all staff has been signed by nearly 1,000 workers, with more signatures expected to come, according to SEIU Senior Communications Specialist Rachel Mann.
“We’ve all been impacted by what’s going on. Whether we are doing our assigned work or not, we are still working,” SEIU Virginia 512 Executive Board President Tammie Wondong said. “…We are continuing to keep Fairfax County running. Residents are being continually served. So, that’s why everyone needs to have hazard pay.”
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors was initially scheduled to vote on the proposed plan on Tuesday (Jan. 26), but the decision was postponed after Chairman Jeff McKay asked staff to continue discussions with the union and other workers’ groups.
Under the staff plan, hazard pay would go to workers whose risk of being exposed to COVID-19 is rated “high” or “very high” by the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) risk assessment. It would also be limited to merit or career positions.
Fairfax County intends to pay for the bonuses using CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds. Federal guidelines, however, dictate that CARES Act money can only be used for hazard pay if an employee is performing duties that involve physical hardship related to COVID-19 response efforts.
In other words, localities must establish criteria for hazard pay eligibility to use CARES relief funds, Fairfax County Department of Management and Budget Director Christina Jackson told the board on Jan. 12.
The county could use its own funds to extend hazard pay to more workers, but McKay suggests employees should temper their expectations for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
“Based on the economic impacts of the ongoing pandemic, it will be challenging to address many of the Board’s priorities in the FY2022 [budget],” McKay said in a statement to Tysons Reporter. “The budget is still early stages and we are exploring what options are available, but it is unlikely we would have the resources to increase hazard pay funding in the next budget cycle.”
SEIU Virginia 512 supports the amount of the proposed bonus, which came out of talks between workers’ groups and county staff, but the union argues restricting hazard pay to select positions and agencies ignores the risks all employees face when doing their jobs.
For instance, a sanitation worker may not typically come into direct contact with the residents whose trash they collect, but their job still requires them to regularly go out into the community.
“You don’t know who you’re passing, and you don’t know who’s infected. You just don’t know,” Wondong said. “It’s a risk that we take just coming in and out of our homes every day.”
The burden placed on workers who test positive for COVID-19 to prove they contracted the disease through their job could also potentially be a concern.
Further complicating matters, Fairfax County has been reassigning many employees to duties outside their usual purview as some departments have reduced operations and others have ramped up during the pandemic.
Wondong is a human service assistant who does social work for the county’s aging and older adults services division, but she is currently working in a different role for her department, one that allows her to work from home but also normally carries a higher salary than what she’s being paid.
Wondong says hazard pay would not be up for debate if Fairfax County employees had stronger collective bargaining powers to guarantee equitable compensation and working conditions.
“What we believe as a union is that all county workers deserve fairness and equity when it comes to pay and benefits. That’s what we believe,” Wondong said.
Photo via Fairfax County government/Facebook