Elected officials in Shiawassee County, Michigan, are returning controversial COVID-19 hazard payments that they awarded themselves using funds received from the American Rescue Plan. The money was designed to help low-income workers who were affected by the pandemic and the essential frontline workers who faced the highest risk of coronavirus exposure because of their work.
When the members of the county’s Board of Commissioners decided to share a windfall of COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government with their employees last week, they had neglected to mention the fact that the county’s high-level administrators would be getting much bigger payments than the frontline workers who put their lives on the line with direct exposure to the virus while vaccinating residents and cleaning buildings.
According to records that were obtained by M Live – The Flint Journal, the county’s top-level administrators were given $25,000 each from the COVID relief funds the county was awarded, and department heads got $12,500. Officials who fell into middle management were given $5,000 each, while health department employees, attorneys and chief deputies received $2,500 each. Cleaning staff was given just $2,000 each, while all other employees were given $1,000.
The move caused outrage, even among some of those who received the funds. Commissioner Marlene Webster was one of many commissioners who voted to provide the hazard pay to the county employees. However, the vote came after a closed session of the commissioners that did not supply a breakdown of how many hazards pay each employee would receive, nor did it specify whether the commissioners would also receive funds.
According to Webster, a Republican representing part of Owosso, she only learned that commissioners were receiving the payment when she saw the deposit in her bank account. Commissioners there are paid $10,000 per year plus stipends for attending meetings. Webster then found out that the chairman of the county board, Jeremy R. Root, received $25,000 while commissioners Brandon Marks and John B. Plowman were given $10,000 each; the other four commissioners got $5,000 each.
She said: “I’m mortified. I never would have voted to give myself more than the average (employee) — if anything.”
She immediately said she planned to return the hazard pay that was awarded to her, adding: “It’s a sad day … I feel badly. It’s a blow to county workers’ morale at a time when it’s difficult to keep good workers … I think (it shows) a serious lack of acknowledgment of what people did (during the pandemic).”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Cindy L. Garber, who was given a $5,000 payment, said she does not plan to return the money and said it pales in comparison to the extra money that hourly employees made during the pandemic thanks to unemployment collected as a result of being laid off one day a week. She also defended the $25,000 payment to Root and accused Webster of “crying like a teenage girl” about the way the money was distributed. Garber also publicly stated that she planned to spend the money she received.
The funds’ distribution may have violated Michigan’s Constitution
On July 23, however, a news release from the county Board of Commissioners announced that the commission’s seven members and the county’s other elected officials would be voluntarily returning the funds.
The release said: “Since the payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant. The commissioners deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted, and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan.”
This came on the same day that County Prosecutor Scott Koerner announced he would be returning his own $12,500 hazard pay. He believes that the payments given to the elected officials are a violation of Michigan’s Constitution. In addition to not being entitled to the funds, he said he believed giving the money back was “just the right thing to do.” He added that he hopes frontline county employees will continue to benefit from the payments.
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