The Leflore County Board of Supervisors tripped up last year in doling out “hazard pay” that was bankrolled by one of the federal government’s coronavirus relief packages.
Because the majority of the board apparently didn’t follow Mississippi law, or an attorney general’s opinion, in awarding $500 to all county employees, those four members are being told by State Auditor Shad White to pay the money back.
In other locales, hazard pay has created a different problem. Almost two years into the pandemic, state and local governments are still trying to decide who deserves it.
The Associated Press recently reported on the dilemma. Among the issues being wrestled with is whether the money, which comes from taxpayers or will one day when all this borrowing comes due, should go only to public employees, or should private sector workers also qualify? And once that determination is made, should the money be directed to a small pool of essential workers, such as those who worked directly with the infected in hospitals or other health care settings? Or should it be spread around to others in lower exposure jobs who were still required to come to work?
The main problem with hazard pay is that once you open up the door to awarding it, everyone thinks they deserve it. And it can become a form of patronage, abused by those in elected office to win over friends and help their re-election chances.
Both of these issues were at play with the Leflore County Board of Supervisors. The four who voted last December to award the hazard pay wanted to cut everyone in on the action, regardless of how much or how little the workers’ jobs put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. And they were preoccupied with getting the checks cut by last Christmas.
It gave the payments the flavor of being blanket bonuses, rather than compensation based on some objective criteria. This ended up grabbing the attention of the state auditor, since non-contractual bonuses are not allowed in state law.
Hazard pay may sound nice in theory. Who doesn’t want to show appreciation to those heroes in health care who put themselves at risk to treat COVID-19 patients, or those first responders who did the same to keep the public safe? But picking and choosing who those heroes are — particularly when there is money attached — can be risky. Feelings are bound to be hurt.
It’s not surprising some jurisdictions are going slow with doling out the money.
- The Greenwood Commonwealth