Fairfax County workers whose jobs put them at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 could receive a one-time hazard pay bonus of $1,500 if county leaders approve a proposal put forward on Tuesday (Jan. 12).
Fairfax County Director of Human Resources Cathy Spage told the Board of Supervisors during its budget policy committee meeting that about 4,000 county employees would be eligible for the bonus, giving the proposal an overall estimated cost of $6.5 million.
If approved, the funds would come out of $10 million in CARES Act coronavirus relief money that the county had set aside earlier for hazard pay, according to Fairfax County Department of Management and Budget Director Christina Jackson.
“I think there’s a strong desire on the board to move forward with something,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “I know there’s still some lingering debate on some pieces of this, but I think the principle here is one that is strongly supported.”
Under the county’s proposal, the hazard pay bonus will be available to workers whose exposure risk level is rated high or very high based on Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) standards established by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
Adopted on July 15, the VOSH COVID-19 risk assessment puts workers in very high, high, medium, and lower risk categories based on their work environment, their proximity to people known or suspected to be infected, their ability to maintain social distancing, and other factors.
The bonus will only be open to merit employees, because the lack of standard schedules for non-merit employees would make it “problematic” to include them, according to Jackson.
Several board members raised concerns about employees being excluded from getting hazard pay despite risking infection by the novel coronavirus as part of their job. For instance, the VOSH standard classifies school settings, restaurants, and construction sites as medium risk.
“There have been outbreaks on construction sites. We know that it happens,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “Based on what I’ve read of the VOSH medium-risk categories, some of them probably make sense. Some of them make me a little bit concerned in terms of how they’re categorizing folks.”
Spage says VOSH generally limits “very high” and “high” risk designations to individuals who are unable to socially distance and work directly with people that have contracted COVID-19 or are highly likely to be positive for the disease.
“Just having contact with the public isn’t going to put you in a high or very high category,” Spage said.
Federal guidelines for using CARES Act funds for hazard pay require localities to establish specific criteria for recipients, so if Fairfax County wants to expand the pool of workers who are eligible for hazard pay, it would likely have to cover those costs on its own, Jackson says.
If the current proposal passes, the county would have about $3.5 million left that it could use for hazard pay or reallocate to other needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McKay acknowledged that there was some pressure for Fairfax County to provide hazard pay early in the pandemic, but county leaders opted to wait until they had more data and a better understanding of COVID-19 transmission.
Some jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C., region that implemented hazard pay, including the District, have since ended their programs, while others are questioning whether they can afford to keep making the payments as the pandemic drags on.
Jackson says the proposed $1,500 bonus is in line with what Loudoun County approved in October and what Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is suggesting for state employees.
“Taking a benefit like this away from somebody once they’ve gotten used to it is never a position anyone wants to be in,” McKay said. “Given the uncertainty that we were facing this entire past year and really are continuing to face now, I think this is a responsible way to do this.”
The Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to approve hazard pay for county workers on Jan. 26. If approved, the county will complete its verification of eligible employees on Feb. 12, and the bonuses would start being paid on Feb. 26.
Staff photo by Catherine Douglas Moran