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Council to get hazard pay proposal later this month

Interim City Manager Al Moor told council this week it would receive a hazard pay proposal for city employees at its Oct. 21 meeting.

“Our plan is to have all the checks ready by the end of the month, which is the second pay period in October,” Moor said Oct. 7 in the first council meeting since Patrick Roberts announced his resignation as city manager.

City staff has developed a two-part definition for a hazard duty employee. The first part outlines the work the employee performed, and the second clarifies for division directors on what categories of employees would not be considered for hazard pay.

No amount for the hazard pay has yet to be identified for city workers who would receive it, but other nearby localities that have implemented a hazard pay bonus — Portsmouth, Hampton and Norfolk — have provided amounts ranging from $250 to $2,000.

Roberts, when the proposal was introduced at a Sept. 2 council work session, said he asked the city’s Finance and Human Resources departments to develop the hazard pay definition, as well as determine the eligibility criteria and a funding strategy.

When the proposal first came to council last month, Roberts said it would combine federal CARES Act money with one-time city money from the end of the previous fiscal year so that “we could apply this definition to a range of city employees who are out in the field working in clearly hazardous conditions, regardless of this federal definition and create some short-term additional pay for those folks.”

Roberts said those receiving hazard pay would receive it for work done during the coronavirus pandemic from March through the end of the year.

City Director of Human Resources Robin Wynn said last month that the city is looking at hazard pay through “a very narrow lens.” She noted that CARES Act funding has provided an expectation for localities to adopt hazard pay policies with extra pay for workers who have performed their job duties in potentially dangerous situations.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said some city employees have told him that separate checks have been given previously for supplemental pay, and that they would prefer to have a separate check in this instance also. He asked that city staff take this into consideration when presenting its plan at the next council meeting.

“They are the ones that have contacted me requesting that they would have a separate check cut instead of all of it added into the regular paycheck,” Bennett said.

Tealen Hansen, city finance director, said the hazard pay going to city employees would come in their regular check.

Hansen said the Internal Revenue Service requires the city, if it writes supplemental checks, to tax employees at a higher rate than the normal aggregate rate they’re taxed at when they receive their regular paychecks.

“For the vast majority of our employees, getting a hazard paycheck on a separate check would require them to get, actually, taxed more than they would if it’s included in their regular paycheck,” Hansen said. “For that reason, we are recommending doing it in their regular paychecks.”

She also cited the time and workload it puts on the city’s payroll staff, especially as it is transitioning from one payroll system to another. It currently has to enter information into two systems to ensure the new system mirrors the old one.

“If we are writing extra checks, that’s basically entering it four times because of the way we have to do that,” Hansen said.

Councilman Donald Goldberg said city workers “have put their lives on the line for us,” and added that he would not want first responders and other city employees who would receive hazard pay to pay an increased tax. Bennett agreed.

“I don’t know how we would work that out, or whatever, but I hope we can move forward with this,” Goldberg said.

Said Mayor Linda Johnson: “And I don’t want them to get it a week later, either.”

Hansen said city employees receiving hazard pay would receive communication on the amount of hazard pay. But in the current payroll system, city staff is limited as to what it can put onto the checks. The new system will give it more flexibility.

“It basically says ‘regular and other,’” Hansen said, responding to a question from Councilman Roger Fawcett. “That’s it. So the answer to your question is, no, we cannot put that as a separate line that will show up on their pay stub at this time.”

Hansen said the city’s Human Resources department is working on the communication that would go out to city employees receiving hazard pay.

“I’m not at all (in favor) of a delay,” Bennett said. “I think they’ve waited long enough to get the pay. … I think they should have already had it, really.”