County adopts new pandemic-related pay bump

Most full-time employees of Island County government will receive an extra $2,880 in “premium pay” funded through federal relief funds.

Most full-time employees of Island County government will receive an extra $2,880 in “premium pay” funded through federal relief funds.

Island County officials took a second shot this week at finding a legal way to funnel American Rescue Plan Act money to their staff. The commissioners passed a resolution in July that they rescinded because the county prosecutor said it didn’t comply with state law.

The purpose of premium pay is to compensate employees who have to work with the public and are exposed to risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Particularly in this time, when we’re seeing the delta variant, which is a much more contagious variant, I think it’s prudent that the board has chosen to use some of the American Rescue Plan Act money to provide that premium pay,” Human Resource Director Catherine Reid said at the commissioner meeting Tuesday.

To be eligible, employees must work at least 20 hours a week, work on site — as opposed to telecommuting — and be employed with the county since Aug. 17. Elected officials are excluded.

Employees will earn an extra $12 an hour for up to 40 hours a week during a six-week period between Aug. 29 and Oct. 9. An employee can earn a maximum of $2,880 of premium pay. They will receive the pay if they are on pre-planned vacations during that time.

About 440 of the county’s 575 employees will receive the bump in pay, according to Reid. It will cost a little less than $1.5 million of the $16.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds the county is receiving.

The federal act specifically allows premium pay for “essential” employees, both public and private, who have to work jobs that put them at risk of exposure to COVID-19. All county employees are considered essential under the federal rules, except those who do “telework performed from a residence.”

Island County Prose-cutor Greg Banks concluded that the commissioners’ original resolution, which provided a one-time payment, was inconsistent with state law and the state constitution because of restrictions on retroactive gifts to public employees. Also, it would have allowed teleworking staff to receive the money in violation of federal rules.

Yet Banks said a resolution could be drafted that complied with law and provided most employees with the extra money. He worked with Reid and the budget manager to bring the new document back to the commissioners this week.

Instead of lump-sum payments, the new resolution provides a per-hour pay increase tied to work employees will do in the future.

The resolution has a longer preamble to justify the extra pay, summarizing the course of the pandemic, the danger of COVID-19, government restrictions and the important work county employees accomplished.

“These incentives are particularly directed at employees who have proven their value, courage and altruism by exposing themselves and their families to financial and health risks during the pandemic,” it states.

Several county officials said the only other jurisdiction they are aware of that provided premium pay to their employees is Snohomish County, although many — if not most — counties and municipalities haven’t made decisions about spending the funds yet.