Ky. city allocates $15M for 'hero pay'

All 1,700 of Lexington's essential workers could receive up to $5,000 in supplemental pay


Beth Musgrave
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Lexington council took its first vote Tuesday to set aside $15 million in federal coronavirus relief money for supplemental pay for up to 1,700 essential city employees who have worked during the pandemic.

During a Tuesday council work session, Lexington city administrators did not have the full details on exactly how many people and departments qualify as essential workers, nor did it have an exact amount each of those essential workers would receive under the pay program.

U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines for the American Rescue Plan Act money deemed essential workers during the pandemic as anyone who had face-to-face contact with the public.
U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines for the American Rescue Plan Act money deemed essential workers during the pandemic as anyone who had face-to-face contact with the public. (Pixabay)

Public safety — including police, fire, 911 call center employees and corrections officers — would qualify as essential workers, city officials said.

The council voted during the work session to move the proposal to its council meeting agenda, despite pushback from some members who said the issue of supplemental pay should be addressed at a Sept. 30 meeting. At the later meeting, council members will further discuss how to allocate nearly $120 million of the city's American Rescue Plan Act money.

No private employees — such as hospital employees — are included in the proposal. American Rescue Plan Act rules allow for that money to be given to private employees who also worked during the pandemic.

Vaccinations will also not be required to get the supplemental pay, sometimes referred to as "hero pay."

City officials don't know how many of the city's more than 3,000 employees have been vaccinated, said Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city.

"In many departments, we have asked but can't require a response," Straub said. "Nor can we do anything with the information."

Yet, the University of Kentucky knows and tracks how many of its employees and students are vaccinated — 85 percent as of Sept. 15. It has mandated health care employees get the vaccine or be tested weekly but has no mandate for university staff and students.

Louisville Metro Government, which has also not mandated vaccines or weekly testing requirements, has also tracked and reported some vaccination numbers of its employees. At the end of August, only 37 percent of its public works department were vaccinated; the metro corrections vaccination rate was 40 percent. Police were at 48 percent with fire at 55 percent.

Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton has not announced a vaccine mandate for employees. President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that companies with more than 100 employees would be required to mandate inoculations against the highly contagious virus. Federal officials have not yet released the guidelines on that program or said if local governments are included.

"We're waiting on the rules to come out from the Biden administration," Straub said.

"The mayor has repeatedly encouraged all employees, and all Fayette County residents, to get vaccinated," Straub said. "She has worked diligently to provide vaccine opportunities and education to get everyone vaccinated."

J.D. Chaney, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, said the group is waiting on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue the emergency regulations regarding mandates for companies with 100 or more employees. Chaney said national local government groups believe the rule will apply to cities because OSHA rules are enforced through Kentucky labor officials who have jurisdiction over local governments.

"We won't know until we see the emergency regulations," Chaney said. "We don't know if that means only cities with more than 100 employees or all cities since the ( Kentucky) Labor Cabinet enforces OSHA policies for all local governments."

Chaney said Kentucky two cities — Prospect and Hazard — have opted to require vaccinations for city employees or weekly testing.

At least one of Lexington's employee unions said a vaccine mandate has to be negotiated with the union.

"We are opposed to a mandate that is not collectively bargained because it is a condition of employment," said Lt. Kevin Pletzke, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 526, which represents Lexington firefighters. "Are there alternatives, such as masking or testing, which is what other places have done. Also, we want to know if the vaccination is done on duty or on work time and if there is time off if there is an adverse reaction."

Lexington firefighters are also the city's ambulance service. They are EMTs and paramedics who come in close contact with COVID patients and other sick people. Some have questioned why, as medical professionals, they are not required to get the vaccine to protect patients and themselves.

"Any time we come in contact with someone, we are wearing PPE (personal protection equipment)," Pletzke said. That protects against transmission of any virus, not just the coronavirus or the more contagious Delta variant.

Who would get 'hero pay'?

Chief Administrative Officer Sally Hamilton said the U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines for the American Rescue Plan Act money deemed essential workers during the pandemic as anyone who had face-to-face contact with the public.

That means roughly 1,700 of the city's employees would qualify for the supplemental pay. City officials were trying to determine exact numbers. .

Gorton had originally proposed $10 million for additional pay for city essential workers but Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilman Fred Brown proposed Tuesday upping that to $15 million to cover additional costs, such as fringe benefits associated with bumping pay.

A $15 million total could mean up to $5,000 for all 1,700 employees that qualify.

Brown pushed the council to move the proposal to the council's agenda, saying the city should reward its employees who worked during the pandemic and there was widespread support for it.

Vice Mayor Steve Kay said the council had established a process to sort through more than 550 proposals submitted by the public for the $120 million in federal coronavirus relief funding. The council is expected to meet Sept. 30 to further vet those projects. Council members were expected to come to that meeting with their top 30 projects. The city has already allocated a little more than $7 million from the $120 million in the current-year budget.

Kay urged the council to wait until after the Sept. 30 meeting before pushing the proposal through to preserve the process the council had put in place. Kay suggested the administration come to the Sept. 30 meeting and provide more details about the supplemental pay, including which employees would receive it. If the council agreed, it could still go on the Sept. 30 meeting agenda.

Councilman David Kloiber agreed.

"We don't know how many people this is going to affect," Kloiber said. "We can do this today or we can do this next week with more information. This will not delay moving it forward," Kloiber said of Kay's proposal to wait a week to get more information.

But Brown and others disagreed. Supplemental pay for essential employees needs to be addressed immediately, they said. City officials said it would likely take two months to implement the bonus pay. That means city employees who qualify won't see the money until around Thanksgiving.

"This is one issue that we can move forward quickly," Brown said.

Ultimately the council voted not to delay, putting the supplemental pay on the docket for first reading on Sept. 30. A final vote is scheduled for Oct. 14. In addition, the council agreed to its committee exploring how to fund supplemental pay for remaining employees who do not qualify as essential workers.

One issue possibly driving the discussions on supplemental play is ongoing negotiations between the Fraternal Order of Police Blue Grass Lodge 4 and the city over the contract for sergeants and police officers. Bonus pay could be part of the contract proposal.

Both FOP and city officials have declined comment on the status of those negotiations.

Officials with the FOP and the FOP Town Branch Lodge 83, which represents Fayette County Detention Center correction officers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the supplemental pay or vaccine requirements.

Pletzke said he still needed to learn more about the supplemental pay proposal, but firefighters and other emergency responders did not have the option of working from home throughout the past 18 months.

"We had to deal with the same stresses as everyone else. We had kids learning from home. We had spouses lose jobs. We also faced the fear of being exposed to this virus," Pletzke said. "Now that there is premium pay, firefighters definitely need to be part of that conversation."

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(c)2021 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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