FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Forsyth County commissioners are moving forward with plans to introduce hazard pay for its employees working in the field during the coronavirus pandemic.
At its April 14 video conference work session, county commissioners introduced a plan similar to one approved a week earlier in neighboring Cherokee County that will pay employees who face “significant elevated risk” of exposure to the coronavirus an additional $500 a month. Those employees facing “elevated risk” of exposure will receive $250 a month in hazard pay.
The Cherokee resolution specifically identifies first responders out in the field, such as law enforcement, fire and emergency services, as those with significant elevated risk. It also charges the head of each department to determine which employees qualify for the stipend.
Forsyth commissioners honed their own proposal further at their regular formal meeting held April 16. Rather than identify jobs that qualify for the stipend, they proposed a three-tiered criteria for employees to qualify for the extra pay.
The highest level, with compensation of $500 a month, would include those employees, such as sheriff’s deputies, whose job requires them to personally interact with people or environments that present an exposure threat.
The two other levels, each entitled to a $250 stipend per month, include workers whose job requires them to enter occupied buildings or residences where a threat of exposure is possible. The third level includes workers whose jobs require them to operate in a setting where social distancing for a prolonged period is not possible.
The proposed resolution would make the extra pay retroactive to March 16 and run through mid-June or sooner if the governor dissolves his declared state of emergency.
Commissioners were scheduled to meet April 21 to ratify a final draft of the resolution.
At the earlier work session, Forsyth County Administrator Eric Johnson said he objects to the term “hazard pay,” because those in public safety face hazards daily.
“What we’re facing now is a little unique because of the fact that we don’t know how medical protocols will change over the course of the coming months,” Johnson said. “We don’t know when there will be broad testing. We don’t know when there will be better availability of personal protective equipment, and we don’t know — we hope that — at some point there will be the opportunity for people to be vaccinated against this.”
Sheriff Ron Freeman told commissioners he welcomed the initiative.
“We’ve had eight people on quarantine thus far,” he said. “Thank God, thus far, none have come back positive testing. We still have a couple on quarantine right now.”
Freeman said the Fire Department has also had members under quarantine. Those serving in the community come home every day fearing they may be carrying the virus and expose their families, he said.
Based on early estimates, Johnson said adding the stipend for frontline workers could cost Forsyth County as much as $1.1 million over three months. However, he said he expects part of those costs to be absorbed within the departments’ current budgets.
“This is to get us through these early days where there’s a level of uncertainty,” Johnson said.
By comparison, Johnson said officials in Cherokee County placed their estimate for the extra pay program at $1.7 million for 90 days, but he wasn’t sure how they arrived at their figure.
At the other end of the spectrum, Johnson said DeKalb County is considering a proposal to pay frontline employees time-and-a-half during the pandemic, plus four extra hours of comp time for every eight hours worked. Critics on the DeKalb Board of Commissioners say the measure, proposed by CEO Michael Thurmond, could cost the county as much as $9 million, a figure Thurmond contests.