Hazard pay is $350 per two-week period in neighboring Prince George’s County, $250 in Anne Arundel and $200 in Baltimore County. The District suspended its hazard pay program July 25, after the city entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan, and the state of Maryland has curtailed most of its extra payments.
As of September, Montgomery had distributed $49.2 million in hazard pay. If current policies persist, that amount will reach $72 million by the end of the year, according to a recent memo to the Montgomery County Council.
But as the pandemic marches into its eighth month, with job losses and business closures cutting into tax revenue and boosting the need for social services, some lawmakers say they aren’t sure the wealthy suburb of 1 million can afford such largesse.
“What is your plan here? How do you envision the county paying for this?” council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) asked Chief Administrative Officer Richard S. Madaleno Jr. in a hearing Tuesday. “It seems to me that this is a huge gamble that may end up as a major fiscal problem.”
“I’m glad [county workers] are getting hazard pay,” the council’s vice president, Tom Hucker (D-District 5), said in an interview before the hearing. “But it’s a real cost to the county at a time when there’s just enormous drains to our resources.”
Union leaders, who have been close allies of County Executive Marc Elrich (D), say the extra pay is a necessary expense in a county where almost 24,000 people have tested positive for the deadly virus, including over 1,200 county government employees.
“Police, firefighters and public employees every day go out and risk their lives to keep their county running,” said Scott Treibitz, a spokesman for the county government’s three main unions. “The idea that we are not in a hazardous situation anymore is just not true.”
According to an agreement Elrich negotiated in April with the unions — the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 (MCGEO) — hazard pay is supposed to continue for essential workers until Maryland’s state of emergency is lifted.
Since the summer, many large retailers, hospitals and government agencies across the country have eliminated the pay raises they gave employees at the start of the pandemic.
In the Washington metro area, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia never instituted pandemic-related hazard pay programs, though some distributed one-off bonuses to front-line workers. The District paid some of its employees $14 extra per day but halted the payments in July. Prince George’s distributed $12 million in hazard pay to employees from March to July and is evaluating whether it should continue, a spokeswoman said.
Maryland stopped paying extra salary to thousands of state employees on Sept. 11, with state officials saying at the time that there is “less of a need” for the extra pay given that more people are returning to in-person work. Only employees working in a designated coronavirus quarantine area — such as in detention centers — still receive a $5.13-per-hour “response pay” bonus.
At the hearing Tuesday, council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1) grilled Madaleno on Elrich’s plans to afford the government’s generous program, especially given the revenue shortfalls that the county stands to face because of pandemic shutdowns.
Elrich aides have previously said they expected the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse up to 75 percent of the costs. But based on recently updated federal guidelines, “it is likely that the county will need to cover much more than 25 percent of the total cost of the pay differential,” council staff members wrote in their report.
Montgomery’s head of emergency management, Earl Stoddard, said the application process for reimbursement has been unexpectedly complex and slow; as of this week, the county has received approval for only $20,000 in FEMA reimbursement. The county is preparing to submit a request for an additional $24 million in reimbursements, but that is largely for costs associated with protective equipment and other goods, not hazard pay, Stoddard said.
Madaleno said the county government “will be working toward making alterations” to the agreements signed with unions but noted that emergency pay is written into their contracts.
Lawmakers on Tuesday also slammed the Elrich administration for its slow rollout of several county relief programs. The council has appropriated millions of dollars in federal funding and drawn down on its general reserves to finance initiatives meant to help residents through the pandemic, from rental assistance to business grants. But implementation of some programs has been slow, the same council report revealed.
Of the $20 million that was approved in July for a rental assistance program, for example, only $600,000 — less than 3 percent — had been distributed as of Sept. 30. While the county received more than 2,200 applications for rental assistance by the end of last month, it issued only 145 checks.
“There’s no excuse for why this money has not been out there,” said council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4).
Officials said that if programs are not implemented faster, the county may lose federal funding for them.
“The process has been unacceptable. . . . I share your frustration over this,” Madaleno told lawmakers. He said the county has hired new consultants and redirected seven full-time employees to work on federal reimbursement applications.
Erin Cox and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.