In response to recent guidelines handed down by the federal government, the Sunflower County Board of Supervisors convened again on Monday for a brief session to discuss employee leave time for those needing to be off work due to coronavirus-related issues and how it is to be handled.
The board voted unanimously to accept a proposal presented by Attorney Johnny McWilliams.
At its March 24 meeting the county lawmakers established guidelines whereby employees who fell into certain categories would be eligible for administrative paid leave. Under that policy the county would be 100 percent responsible for paying the employees’ salaries during their time off.
However, McWilliams said since that session he has been made aware of new federal laws that will reimburse the county for up to 80 hours of sick leave, which equates to 10 days.
He said, "After that meeting, I found out that the Congress had already passed one law and was definitely considering another law that would make a lot of difference as far as sick leave that you could be reimbursed for sick leave and expanded family medical leave and so I was talking to you all about the possible recommendation to not put people on administrative leave with pay, but instead to change it to sick leave."
McWilliams provided the leaders with a recommendation that authorized them to categorize employee time off due to COVID-19 as paid sick leave or emergency family medical leave. "And all of that is authorized to be paid and would be reimbursed to the county by the federal government,” he said.
In addition, some employees may qualify for a furlough, which he described as being similar to terminating someone, while allowing them to continue on the county's health insurance and draw unemployment benefits, which by a new state statute would be available immediately without a waiting period.
McWilliams said, "I think what you did at your last meeting was appropriate and proper and it should just stay in place as what you did that day." He added that the new laws did not go in effect until April 1, so until that time any employee that was out on leave would remain on paid administrative leave and be switched over.
He said the measure they validated this week was essentially the same as they voted on at the previous meeting, but with an exception. "The county administrator, you are now charged with the authority and responsibility to classify the leaves so that it's the best option for the employee, the best opportunity for the county to be reimbursed under these new federal statutes."
Employees are to be classified according to how they fit into certain categories, which included persons over the age of 60, persons with underlying health condition, those who have been exposed to the virus or exemplifying symptoms of the virus or who have traveled to known virus hotspots, plus persons responsible for the care of a child or elderly person due to school closures and quarantines.
The objective is to get the best coverage to the employees and have the county be able to be reimbursed for it. According to McWilliams, using the new federal classifications will not affect the employees accumulated sick time. "They do not require that the employee use up their other sick leave first," he said.
One question that arose during the discussion was how to handle leave time if a person goes beyond the 10 days allotted by the federal government. Two options were discussed, to have the employee revert to paid administrative leave or be furloughed depending on their status category.
County Administrator Gloria McIntosh said she was informed that the unemployment benefit amount would be a flat $600 per week, which would be more for some employees, but less the normal salary for others.
District 1 Supervisor Glenn Donald expressed his desire that the employees revert to paid administrative leave rather than furlough because if they are furloughed no money is contributed to their retirement.
McWilliams cautioned that no part of the administrative paid leave will be reimbursed, but under the emergency family medical leave there is a possibility that at least two-thirds of those funds would come back to the county from the federal government.
There is still some question about what portion of the emergency family medical leave would be reimbursed and whether it will require a 10 day wait, where the employee would not receive any funds until the 11th day. So, no definitive conclusion was made on handling leave time after the federal 10-day leave plan expires.
District 3 Supervisor Ben Gaston said, "We don't really know until we've seen the written law.”
And McWilliams added that an additional law was handed down on Friday; however, he did not have the specifics of that yet. "It's all happening so fast that you can hardly keep up with it," he said
In other business,
The county lawmakers also discussed the possibility of closing off certain entrances to the county courthouse in the interest of employee safety.
McIntosh said the courthouse would still be available for persons needing to complete essential services.
“We’re still going to be accessible, but we’re going to be limiting the number of people who actually come into the offices.”
She said anyone needing to make a payment could do so by mailing it in or calling in to use a debit or credit card by phone.
Although all of the members seem to be in agreement that it was a necessary measure to take, no definite decisions was made under the advisement of McWilliams, who said they should consult with the sheriff first.
However, his recommendation was to close off all entrances except the south side main door.
Board President Riley Rice suggested appointing District 5 Supervisor Gloria Dickerson and Donald to serve as representatives for the board during Sunflower County Emergency Management Director Denny Evans' weekly calls to the state's emergency management agency to gets updates.
"That's what I want. Since we can't have more than two listening in to Denny," Rice said.
Evans also provided the members with the latest state and local totals for positive cases with regard to the COVID-19 virus and the associated deaths.