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By PJ Ferguson

Hazard pay for Washington County employees working through the COVID-19 pandemic will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, according to County Administrator Chris Debolt.

The county approved paying their essential employees time and a half on March 18 in the departments of public health, public safety, and the sheriff’s office. This declaration came only two days before the deadline for eligibility for the expenditures to be reimbursed by FEMA.

As the county begins to bring back other employees, they too will receive hazard pay, which will ultimately be reimbursed by the federal government.

Several town supervisors previously expressed interest in department of public works employees returning to work as soon as possible. Public works superintendent Deborah Donohue admitted that they were “struggling with how to implement” bringing employees back due to safety and sanitation concerns.

The proposed plan had DPW employees returning on May 11, staggering workers’ schedules to ensure that everyone worked the same hours in a pay period as only 50% of the crew would be permitted to work at a given time. However, many supervisors felt the date was too soon without a concrete plan in place.

Putnam supervisor Darrell Wilson called for a plan to be “listed out on paper” prior to workers returning.

“Let’s not rush to failure,” Wilson said. “It might slow us down but we can assure to the best of our ability to make that workplace safe for everybody going forward.”

Granville supervisor Matt Hicks concurred with Wilson’s call for DPW creating a protocol before a decision was made.

“I think the 11th is a little quick,” said Hicks, adding that he would prefer if the supervisors could review the plan and discuss it during their next board meeting on May 15.

Jackson supervisor and public works committee head Jay Skellie was also in favor of erring on the side of caution.

“We certainly want to get things going but don’t want to endanger our crew either,” said Skellie.

Other supervisors are looking to get things moving faster.

Hartford supervisor Dana Haff expressed frustration with the delay in DPW employees returning to work and called for not providing them with hazard pay upon their return.

“Why are we worried about fairness?” he asked.

County attorney Roger Wickes explained that picking and choosing which county employees receive hazard pay would result in “negotiation issues” with the DPW’s union.

Haff went on to argue that the county’s policy on hazard pay should be amended and cautioned against its continuation.

“What would it take to end the hazard pay?” Haff asked, “We cannot afford to do this regardless of FEMA reimbursement.”

Debolt explained that due to the reimbursement there would be no cost to the county.

“Well we all pay taxes,” Haff responded. “That money comes from somewhere. At some point the shoe is going to drop. We need to look at ways to effectively implement the reopening of the county.”

Haff continued his advocacy for reopening the county over the course of the two-hour meeting, arguing that the mortality rate for the COVID-19 virus is low in the county, and asking if the county had criteria for their decisions or were acting based on a “feeling.”

“I think you need to look at the math,” he said, adding that the “flu kills an awful amount of people,” again pointing to the low mortality rate. “I don’t want to sound heartless but we are paralyzed due to fear.”

Board chairman and Fort Ann supervisor Samuel Hall did not agree with Haff’s assessment.

“We can expect more deaths,” Hall said, “Our apex is just starting to hit. One life to me is too many to lose.”

Debolt added that the criteria for reopening is based on hospitalization rates decreasing over a two-week period, a decreasing trend in infections and that the mortality rate does not play a role in the state’s assessment.

The current number of confirmed cases in the county sits at 165, an uptick of roughly 30 cases from last week. Eight people have now died due to the virus with the latest victim being a resident at the Fort Hudson Nursing Home in Fort Edward.

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