Santa Clara County approves COVID hazard pay for workers
Health care workers wait and pace in the hallway to be among the first receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose in January 2021. File photo.

Santa Clara County employees can likely expect a bonus in their paychecks come December in recognition of their hazardous work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a request to pay more than $76 million to help each of the county’s 22,000 employees by Dec. 3. Employees will receive $2,500 for their work during the pandemic, regardless of whether they were frontline workers. Funding will come from the federal American Rescue Plan.

“We felt strongly that everyone in the county employ participated vigorously to the greatest extent possible in providing a response to the pandemic,” said County Executive Jeff Smith. “Therefore we didn’t feel administratively we could pick a group or particular job or particular activity that was more deserving of a larger amount of money than any other.”

Independent providers of in-home supportive services are a notable exception. The county uses these workers to provide housecleaning, cooking, shopping and other services for elderly and/or disabled residents, but they are not technically county employees. Smith said the state is already paying these workers a one-time payment of $500 and recommended the county pay them another $500.

Smith told San José Spotlight the county can’t pay in-home supportive service providers $2,500 because they’re not actual employees of the county. He also noted there are approximately 27,600 of them in Santa Clara County alone.

“That would have doubled the cost,” he said.

Numerous municipalities around the country used so-called “hero pay” bonuses to reward frontline workers who placed themselves in hazardous conditions during the pandemic to continue essential services, such as hospitals and grocery stores. Business groups in Santa Clara County have been fiercely opposed to mandated hazard pay.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg noted that Santa Clara County is somewhat unique as one of the only large counties in California to approve hazard pay for public employees, the other being San Diego.

“I support the pandemic hazard pay for our workforce,” Ellenberg said. “Clearly, they put their lives on the line to stand up the most responsive and expansive COVID response in the country.”

Supervisor Otto Lee, who abstained from the vote, attached an amendment to exclude the supervisors from being paid, and discussed the possibility of notifying workers they can opt out of receiving the hazard pay.

“I would not, as an elected official, vote for a $2,500 (payment) for myself,” Lee said. “I think for so many reasons that the amount that has been provided here… it’s very generous, but in some ways overly generous.”

Smith also excluded himself from the hazard pay bonus, saying he couldn’t reasonably make a recommendation to increase his own salary. Smith continued to refuse the bonus after Supervisor Mike Wasserman praised his work and asked that he consider taking the extra pay, noting he could donate it to charity.

Businesses in the county have repeatedly protested mandated hazard pay, citing concerns about how it could ruin commerce and kill jobs. The California Grocers’ Association sued San Jose in March for giving grocery workers a hazard pay bump of $3 per hour, claiming it violates the equal protection clause in the U.S. and California constitutions by singling out grocers—and that it violates the National Labor Relations Act. The suit was voluntarily dismissed in September.

Santa Clara County lawmakers scaled back a similar proposal earlier this year to give low-wage workers a COVID-19 hazard pay bump, limiting the bonus to grocery and pharmacy workers in unincorporated parts of the county. A coalition of business groups campaigned aggressively against the mandate, saying it would worsen food insecurity and bleed thousands of jobs from the county.

Smith said he hopes nobody will object to hazard pay, but noted that the proposal is contingent on meeting and conferring with county unions about the terms. Union officials told San José Spotlight it’s a relatively cut and dry issue.

“As far as SEIU is concerned, we are most definitely for it,” said Janet Diaz, SEIU 521 Santa Clara County chapter president. “We will continue advocating until the ink is dry.”

Allan Kamara, clinical nurse and president of the Registered Nurses Professional Association, told San José Spotlight he appreciates supervisors offering these funds, but he wants to make sure all members receive equal pay. He said the county wants to prorate pay for some nurses who don’t work full-time.

“Our position is every nurse in the bargaining unit should be paid $2,500,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether they were full time or part time, everybody’s doing their work.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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