‘It was scary for all of us,’ risk premium provided support during pandemic’s darkest days – The Oakland Press


The memories of those first months are still very fresh in his mind.

Calandra Green, who works as a public health nursing administrator in the Oakland County Health Division, said the early days of the pandemic were frightening and difficult.

Although many Michiganders had the luxury of being able to stay home and work as the number of cases and deaths mounted and the state closed its doors, Green and thousands of essential workers like her had to make do. show up at work during this very unpredictable and unstable time.

To support those who provide essential services, such as public health and emergency response, Oakland County and many other local governments have provided a risk premium of up to four months to supplement regular wages. In the past year, about a third of U.S. states have used federal COVID-19 relief assistance to reward workers deemed essential who have turned up for jobs during the pandemic, according to an Associated Press review. .

Between March and June 2020, Oakland County paid $ 9.1 million in risk premiums to approximately 3,500 employees. Of those who received the bonus, public health officials received $ 1.45 million and sheriff’s department employees received $ 5 million.

Green said the additional support was unexpected but much appreciated, especially as colleagues were forced to stay at home due to exposure to the virus.

“It has created a lot of financial ruin for some of our employees,” she said. “The risk premium has helped families who have gone from two incomes to one income. It was definitely an advantage.

In those first few months, Green said she and her colleagues had to wear many hats as the health division began to respond to the pandemic, and with so much still unknown to public health officials and the government. public.

“It was very informative to see how this group of individuals really came together and really thought outside the box on how they could help the community and what was needed to raise awareness for covid-19,” she declared. “It was a scary time for all of us. We cannot hide from the fact that we risk our lives every day and then have to return home to our families not knowing if we would be infected that day. “

Oakland County public health nurses are preparing to open the county’s first COVID-19 drive-thru test site in Pontiac on Thursday, April 16, 2020 (The Oakland Press)

On average, core Oakland County government employees each received approximately $ 3,000 to $ 3,500 in risk bonus. Most of the funding – $ 7.8 million – came from the county general fund, while the remaining part came in the form of federal CARES Act relief dollars provided by the state of Michigan.

Like Oakland County, Michigan seized the opportunity to provide additional pandemic pay for its core group of workers.

According to data obtained by The Oakland Press, Michigan paid out $ 52.7 million in pandemic bonuses to about 14,000 workers, which represents about 28% of the state government workforce.

On average, essential state employees received approximately $ 3,500 in risk premiums between April and June 2020.

Oakland County public health nurses are preparing to open the county’s first COVID-19 drive-thru test site in Pontiac on Thursday, April 16, 2020 (The Oakland Press)

Most of the dollars – over $ 18 million – were distributed to state correctional officers working in state prisons.

Vikas Vij, a husband and father from Macomb County who works as a state corrections officer at the Thumb Correctional Center in Lapeer, said the early days of the pandemic were frightening, especially for those working in the state prisons.

“Sometimes we worked 16 hours a day instead of eight because other correctional officers were positive,” he said. “Even before the pandemic, we were understaffed. It was really scary. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to work scared.

He said his risk premium was used to help pay for child care, with an 8-year-old at home, along with other necessities such as groceries and other bills that “were piling up. “.

“The risk premium was definitely a godsend. “We needed it and it was really helpful,” he said. I applaud the Corrections for bringing it out.

As more sectors of society reopen, rates of virus cases decline and more people return to work in person, the momentum to provide a pandemic risk premium appears to be waning – even whether the federal government expanded the ability of state and local governments to provide a retroactive risk premium under a $ 350 billion aid package promulgated by President Joe Biden in March.

Under the direction of the US Treasury Department, US bailout assistance provided to state and local governments can be used for risk premiums with a cap of $ 25,000 per eligible employee.

For workers earning the minimum wage, the risk premium could temporarily more than double their wages. The rule defines premium wages as “an amount of up to $ 13 per hour in addition to the wages or compensation the worker otherwise receives.” If the salary increases a worker’s salary by more than 150%, a written justification is also required.

So far, only a few states have pledged to pay extra for essential workers with US bailout money.

Florida offers $ 1,000 bonuses to teachers and first responders. Minnesota plans to distribute $ 250 million in bonuses to essential workers, although a special panel will not determine who qualifies until later this year.

Bill Mullan, spokesperson for the Oakland County Executive Office, told The Oakland Press that the idea of ​​using part of the $ 244 million allocation from the county’s US bailout for the risk premium had not been discussed.

“As we look to the future with the US bailout funds, one of the guiding principles is how can we invest the money in a transformative way,” he said.

At the state level, it also seems highly unlikely that risk premiums will again be provided to state workers and that state-administered risk premium subsidy programs will resume for local workers.

Using a mix of state and federal dollars, Michigan has administered several grant programs that provide additional income to local first responders and educators.

One such program included the First Responder Hazard Pay Rewards program, which provided up to $ 1,000 per eligible essential employee. The program was funded using part of the federal state CARES allocation.

Oakland County and its communities received combined program funding of $ 4.34 million to provide a risk premium for first responders.

The MI Classrooms Heroes Grants, which included three grant programs, provided grants to teachers and other educational support staff. This program was funded with government dollars.

Statewide, to date, more than $ 39.2 million has been distributed in grants of up to $ 500 to more than 80,000 people for the COVID-19 Grants Program for Teachers and over 13, $ 6 million has been distributed in grants of up to $ 250 to more than 59,400 people for the COVID-19 Support Staff Grants Program.

This week, the COVID-19 Head Start Prep, Head Start, Adult Education and Special Education for Young Adults program distributed $ 2.5 million in grants of up to 446 $ to more than 5,700 people.

If these programs are to continue, whether funded by the state or the federal government, the Michigan legislature and Governor Gretchen Whitmer would have to approve the necessary allocations and essentially reinstate these programs.

For Green, those first few months were “a very, very scary time,” adding that “I had no choice” whether or not to show up for work.

When the first case was confirmed in Michigan, Green had only been on the job for three weeks and was still undergoing training as a health division’s quality and process improvement supervisor.

“I was just starting to get my feet wet,” she said. “I remember the day we saw our first case here in Michigan and (the health division) started getting a flood of calls that day.”

As cases began to increase, Green, like other essential workers working in the healthcare division, had to start playing roles that weren’t necessarily in his job description.

This included responding to phone calls from affected residents. On several occasions, Green said, she and her staff did not answer questions, but were instead there to provide emotional support to affected residents who had been infected or lost a loved one to the virus.

“I had no experience answering these phones and understanding these questions,” she said. “Your job title didn’t really matter. We were stripped of our titles and we all had to lean on each other. We were all working to help our communicable disease staff as we worked together to learn more about COVID-19. Education and briefing were provided daily.

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