More than a dozen Calhoun County sheriff’s deputies on Thursday asked the County Commission to give them benefits that had been provided to other county employees during the early COVID-19 pandemic.
County offices closed March 19, soon after Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Health issued orders that closed nonessential businesses. Most county employees were considered nonessential, and were sent home with pay until offices reopened May 3. But Sheriff's Office staff — including deputies and jail employees — continued to report to work.
During its meeting Thursday morning, the Calhoun County Commission voted to give those employees and the staff of the county Emergency Management Agency $2.50 per hour for each hour worked from March 19 to May 3. Deputies at the meeting said they instead wanted what other county employees had received: 248 hours — 31 days — of full pay.
“All of us in this room, we raised our hand and signed that dotted line, and we all knew what we got ourselves into,” said deputy Scott Cone. “We don’t want to be held on a high pedestal, but we do ask to be treated fairly.”
Cone was one of several deputies who spoke at the meeting. Most echoed him in saying that they had signed up for risky work and had been glad to do it, but felt that they hadn’t received equal treatment to nonessential workers. One deputy said she was glad fellow county employees hadn’t lost their jobs, but reiterated the point about equality.
Sheriff Matthew Wade was not in attendance that morning, but said by phone that afternoon that he had contacted commissioners about a growing sense within his staff that they had been neglected, starting soon after the March closure. He said he received no response to calls and emails, and only learned of the hazard pay plan Wednesday, when he saw it on the meeting agenda.
“They don’t want extra or hazard pay,” Wade said, noting that as a public official he is ineligible to receive either pay adjustment. “They just want to be treated the same as all other county employees.”
Tyner said the commission had wanted to show appreciation to deputies for their work during the pandemic, and settled on the hazard pay plan. They took stock of what cities in the county had done, as well as other counties in the state. When they checked about three weeks ago, Tyner said, only seven other counties had offered essential employees any kind of compensation.
Meanwhile, paying the full amount that other employees received in administrative leave would be prohibitively expensive, according to Wood.
“It’s probably over half a million dollars to grant the request of the essential employees,” she said.
“I think with the $2.50 per hour it’s roughly $120,000,” Tyner said, “and that’s money in their pockets, not compensation time.”
Wade said Calhoun County employs more than 400 workers; his staff accounts for 110 of them. County Administrator Mark Tyner said after the meeting that the employees included in the hazard pay plan totaled about 135, including deputies and EMA staff. Tyner and Melissia Wood, assistant county administrator, said they did not have on hand the total number of county staff.
Wade said the hazard pay breaks down to about $500 per employee; the lowest-paid employees at the Sheriff's Office make about $10 per hour, he said, and would be owed at least $2,000 if paid the 31-day rate.
Deputies said there were other issues that had raised their ire.
Cone, the deputy who spoke at the meeting, mentioned a colleague who had a daughter “born with complications” soon after the closure began, but didn’t have sick leave to cover time away from work.
“He was told he would have to take unpaid leave while other employees were at home, not working and nonessential,” Cone said. “He had to ask his brothers and sisters in uniform to donate time to him.”
Wade said another deputy had presented COVID-like symptoms, necessitating a 14-day quarantine. He was a new employee, Wade said, who had no sick leave available. The county paid some of his time away from work, after April 1, when money from the CARES act became available, but not before. The deputy quit, Wade said.
“We want citizens to know that we’re not whining or asking for more,” Wade said. “We want to be compensated the same as the rest of the county’s employees; they gave them the financial benefit of 31 paid days off, and we’re asking for the same.”
He said that there may have been other ways to settle the matter than a lump payment, like spreading the money over several pay periods, or even an arrangement in leave benefits. He said a lack of any communication had preempted those possibilities.
“There are all kinds of things that could have been done that would have been equitable,” Wade said.
Tyner and Wood, meanwhile, acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.
“We would want the public and the Sheriff's Office and jail alike to understand and appreciate how difficult it was for the commission and staff in working on those decisions, and how difficult it was to make sure everyone else was taken care of to the best of our ability,” Tyner said. “It was a genuine effort to do the best we could for every employee of the county.”
During its meeting, the commission also:
— Approved a nuisance abatement for 3306 Noble St., Anniston.
— Invoiced nuisances at 1330 Pelham Road, Anniston for $401; at 360 Foster West Road, Jacksonville for $376; at 416 E 54th St., Anniston for $576; and at 1032 Pipe St., Anniston for $276.
— Accepted a bid from Nextran Truck Centers to provide eight heavy-duty dump truck chassis and two heavy-duty lowboy tractors, and another bid from Childersburg Truck Service to provide eight 16-inch steel dump bodies. The bids totaled $1.4 million.
— Approved a resolution to apply for a $7,000 grant through the Coosa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council to buy new playground equipment for the A.P. Hollingsworth Community Center in Wellington.
— Accepted the right of way for a cul-de-sac on Garrett Mitchell Drive, a short road near Alexandria; County engineer Brian Rosenbalm said the county had unofficially been maintaining it for some time.
— Approved the addition of new lots at the Lonesome Pine subdivision in the Choccolocco community, increasing its available lots from two to four, according to Rosenbalm.
— Approved an agreement with Spire Alabama to relocate utilities from the Bynum Leatherwood Road/Old Gadsden Highway intersection in order to pursue an intersection improvement project. The relocation will be at the expense of Spire Alabama.
— Designated Eli Henderson as chairman of the commission effective June 21. The resolution authorizes Henderson and the county administrator, Mark Tyner, to sign any and all vouchers at the county BB&T depository.
Staff Writer Scott Young contributed reporting.