May 232020
 

by Arnaud and Naja Girard

On Wednesday May 20th the Board of County Commissioners gathered to discuss the county’s emergency pay plan which had just cost $1.5 million in a month. It was the commissioners’ opportunity to tighten up the definition of emergency response work and restore transparency and accountability.

As many expected they did exactly the contrary.

The amendment does reduce the amount of bonus pay for individual employees. By no longer paying administrative leave to employees performing emergency work the county’s new plan slashes the pay of first responders. In the future they will only get a half-time bonus over their normal pay. (Their colleagues will, at the same time, be on administrative leave earning full pay while doing no work at all.)

But the amendment also weakens control and accountability and could considerably increase the number of people who can receive the bonus pay.

The devil is in the details.

No more pre-certifications

Upon activation of the county’s emergency response pay plan effective March 17th, Kevin Madok, the Monroe County Clerk and Controller, tried to have the County Administrator provide him the list of employees who had been pre-authorized as “emergency response workers” eligible for special emergency response pay, as required under the county’s policy. We learned the pre-certification requirement had not been enforced. Whether or not that requirement was an important safeguard against cronyism and lack of transparency, on May 20th the Commission agreed to discard it.

No more oversight on certifications

Also abandoned is the requirement that 3 officials certify an eligible employee as an essential emergency response worker. Under the new resolution department directors can, on their own, certify an employee. The resolution no longer requires that the employee’s direct supervisor and the county administrator concur with the department director’s decision.

County Administrator continues to have the ultimate authority to activate the emergency pay plan

The decision to activate the emergency pay plan remains at the full discretion of the county administrator. The fact that Mr. Gastesi had decided, on his own, to activate the emergency play plan for COVID-19 response has been a matter of controversy. The Blue Paper queried all independent jurisdictions in Monroe County about whether they had activated their emergency pay plans when responding to COVID-19. They all immediately responded in the negative. Key West, Marathon, Islamorada, Layton, FKAA, Keys Energy, and Mosquito Control all said they indeed have an emergency pay policy but had not chosen to activate it.

Control over Mr. Gastesi’s actions is an issue. In their written presentations backing-up last Wednesday’s emergency pay plan amendment county bureaucrats wrote that initial activation of the new resolution by the county administrator would be limited to 3 weeks and concurrence by the County Mayor would be required before the pay plan could be reactivated, on a weekly basis. But when we combed the final resolution for language requiring mayoral consent all we found was a requirement to “notify” all available commissioners.

Was it a clerical mistake? Apparently not. The mayoral consent requirement was indeed in the proposed resolution offered for public review. But on the day of the May 20th meeting staff substituted the proposed resolution with a new one: the manager must “independently notify” the commissioners of his intent to reactivate the emergency pay plan; official concurrence by the Mayor is not required.

Every employee becomes eligible for time-and-a-half during the emergency?

This is a very significant change. In the current policy and the previous version of the resolution – the one shared with the public – only employees deemed essential to fight the “causes” of the emergency were eligible for special pay under the plan. Under the revised new plan employees can be eligible for the special emergency pay rate for doing their regular work.

To understand what happened one needs to go back a few weeks. On April 15th the county’s Human Resources Director, Bryan Cook, had tried to convince commissioners that employees should get time-and-a-half if they have to leave home to do their regular work during the COVID-19 emergency. The commissioners were indignant at the idea and unanimously rejected the staff’s proposal. There hasn’t been any special pay for work performed during the COVID-19 emergency since the April 15th meeting.

SEE RELATED: Investigation into County Staff Paid Double-Time-and-a-Half During COVID-19 Emergency

But at the May 20th meeting the same Bryan Cook obtained just that: increased pay to time-and-a-half for employees performing regular duties in times of emergency.

This is how it was done. On the very day of the meeting a couple of new paragraphs were snuck into the resolution which had not appeared in the public version. On page 3 of the final resolution it states that regular work that can’t be put off until after the pay plan is deactivated will be considered “Emergency Response Work”:

Regular work performed during an emergency: … “2. Regular duties performed during a time of emergency, that must be performed in furtherance of the County to meet its responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public shall be considered Emergency Response Work and paid accordingly: time and one half of the employee’s regular hourly rate…

But isn’t that the official mission of just about every government employee?

Were they all going to get time-and-a-half after all?

During the meeting Commissioner Murphy smelled a rat. She questioned Bryan Cook saying she did not want the County to pay time-and-a-half for such health, safety and welfare work as, for instance, trash collection in a park, just because there was a declared emergency. “The onus is on Department Heads,” responded Mr. Cook.

On Wednesday the County Commission adopted the staff’s latest version of the emergency pay plan with one minor revision: The administrator must also notify available commissioners of his initial activation of the emergency response pay plan. Commissioner Cates was the only dissenting vote: “I don’t feel it has enough checks and balances, so I will say no,” said Cates.

So if once again hundreds of employees claim bonuses in the million of dollars it will be the fault of expendable department heads, not the commissioners and not the county administrator.

The reader may remember that Bob Shillinger, the County Attorney, has already convinced these commissioners that if a pay policy has given employees an expectation of higher wages then the money is owed.

Has the county set itself up for the next emergency response pay scandal?

SEE RELATED: LETTER TO THE EDITOR: “Did the County’s new emergency plan tighten up the bonuses?”  

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