City takes no action as board discusses hazard pay for employees

By BY RECARDO THOMAS STAFF REPORTER,

Extending the privilege of hazard pay to Indianola city workers could also place the city’s finances in deep danger.

Alderman Sam Brock added the item to the agenda for discussion implying that city workers have continued in their regular duties tending to the needs of the public despite the COVID-19 crisis.

He said the city should show some type of appreciation toward the workers.

However, no action was taken and the matter was left open until a few issues raised by Mayor Steve Rosenthal could be addressed, namely how the employees would receive the stipend, where the money is coming from and how to legally provide the proposed incentive.

“Bonuses are illegal," Rosenthal said.

He asserted that city workers are not allowed to receive bonuses and the payouts could not be included with the workers’ regular pay.

Rosenthal asked the aldermen to develop some ideas on how to reward the employees and also asked City Attorney Kimberly Merchant to look into ways the incentive could be legally given without designating it as a bonus.

Rosenthal indicated that he was in favor of rewarding the workers. He told the members that he had considered something along those lines and had emailed the Mississippi Municipal Clerk’s Association for guidance in the matter.

Rosenthal said, "As far as pay goes, the state does not approve it. So, it’s not available through PERS; so, if we were to do it, which they recommend not to, you would have to give them a separate check. You cannot include it on their regular pay, so that means our payroll person would have to run double payroll.”

Rosenthal doesn't think the incentive should be done through regular payroll. He told the board members that the first comment in the letter he received from the clerk’s association said,

“You don't want to go down that slippery slope.”

He said that was mainly because none of the municipalities’ systems are set up to handle those kinds of changes. He said the payroll clerk would have to change the pay rate for every employee or a separate rate of pay would have to be added.

Brock mentioned several municipalities that are providing some type of incentive to their employees, but Rosenthal also named several municipalities that were not doing it because those leaders had discussed it and realized the hardship to their city.

Indicating that he was speaking on behalf of himself and the department heads, Police Chief Edrick Hall indicated that Hancock County as well as the city of Tupelo are providing hazard pay. And he added that there is an unconfirmed report that the city of Ruleville is also giving hazard pay.

He also mentioned other cities that plan to discuss it in their upcoming meetings. Hall said, "I do understand it's a tough time, it's tough on everybody and we are grateful and fortunate to still have our jobs, but we're still dealing with people everyday.”

He stated that the virus is causing great concern to a lot of people including all the employees of the city. “I think it would be a great asset and a thought and a token to let the entire City of Indianola know we can lead the way in something.”

Hall assured that whatever the leaders decide to do, it would mean a lot to the other employees who work everyday in the dangerous environment. He talked about the anxiety felt by workers who have to deal with the public all day and then go home to their families not knowing whether they have the disease.

He said, “Knowing you can have it for days at a time and not show any signs or symptoms you could spread it through your entire house.” He stated that although they're still trying to be servants of the city, they also have people in their homes that they love and are trying not to inadvertently bring the disease into their homes.

He stressed that even though the state may have some objection to paying a type of incentive, “it's not illegal.” Rosenthal said the state's concern is with regard to the city's already having to do budget adjustments because of the coronavirus.

Rosenthal again stressed that he is in favor of something being done and added that something could be done, but indicated that he's not sure how to go about it at the present time. He mentioned that the city of Clarksdale is one of the cities that is providing some type of incentive and said they were giving a 25 cents per hour raise.

Rosenthal referenced these as being difficult times and alluded to wanting something done once this virus situation is over. He complimented the workers, "As a whole, everybody showed up for work, done their job.”

However, he cautioned, “Just 25 cents a hour would be a substantial amount of money times 100 people, times 40 hours a week.” He said based on the state economist’s projection, “Everybody (municipalities) should expect at least a 10 percent decrease in budgeted sales tax, for us, 10 percent, we will be down $180,000," he said.

Alderman Darrell Simpson said he was not against giving the employees a one-time bonus once everything was over, but was not for increasing their hourly pay.

Any payout would result in a reallocation of the budget and Rosenthal indicated that some line items would have to be adjusted.

Brock said he understood it would take some adjustment, but felt like a gesture on the city's part would make the employees happy.

Rosenthal said, "If we can find out a mechanical way to do it that won't disrupt our regular payroll… I would think worst case scenario we can have a 15-minute call meeting if we can come up with a process.”

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