Island County commissioners voted to spend $1.5 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds to give most employees “premium pay” bonuses for their “incredible work” during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a resolution passed Tuesday.
The legality of the county’s giveaway, however, is not completely clear, although county officials may have found a creative way around state restrictions on gifting public funds.
The commissioners’ decision awards essential employees hired before Jan. 1, 2021 with a one-time payment of $2,850 and those hired this year with $1,425. The payment amounts were set so that employees would get an even $2,000 or $1,000 after taxes.
Elected officials, temporary election workers, Board of Equalization members, on-call sheriff’s employees, and temporary judges and court commissioners do not qualify.
All of the other employees, including part-time staff, are considered essential and will receive the bonuses if they are working as of July 30, according to county officials.
The three commissioners praised the employees for their work during the unprecedented time. From health department staff to those who work in the law-and-justice system to others offering a plethora of vital services, county employees were on the front lines in the pandemic response and surpassed expectations, the commissioners agreed.
“Over and over again we saw people learning to work in new ways, we saw people willing to stretch, do two things at once and sometimes to work extraordinary hours,” Commissioner Janet St. Clair said, “and really out of a passion for public service.”
Island County received $16.8 million through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, commonly known as ARPA, which provided counties and municipalities across the nation with large amounts of cash and relatively permissive rules governing use of the funds.
Premium pay for eligible workers is allowed.
Yet Municipal Research and Service Center, a respected source of legal information for local government in the state, specifically questions whether premium pay authorized under ARPA would be legal in Washington state.
During a workshop last week, Commissioner Melanie Bacon said she thought that ARPA allowed commissioners to get around state law and state constitutional restrictions on giving away public money.
“This is allowing us to do what essentially is a gift of public funds and the federal government says we can do it,” she said.
A Municipal Research and Service Center blog, however, emphasizes that state restrictions still apply.
“Washington law places significant restrictions on the ability of local governments to provide premium pay or bonuses to employees based on work already performed,” it states. “The reason for this is that if an employee has already been paid for work performed, it is an improper use of public funds to pay that employee a second time (in the form of an additional, after-the-fact payment).”
This view was echoed by Catherine Reid, Human Resources director, who acknowledged to the commissioners Tuesday that, while ARPA allows for retroactive pay to public employees, state law does not — except under narrow conditions.
The resolution, therefore, was crafted to say the premium pay is for staff members’ future work, specifically “work they continue to perform due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Reid and the commissioners, however, repeatedly said during the workshop last week and regular meeting this week that the purpose of the payments is to award employees for their prior actions.
“This is a recognition of these employees staying with our organization or joining our organization during the pandemic,” Reid said.
Commissioner Jill Johnson did note that the bonuses come with future expectations.
“I expect that same attitude going forward,” she said.
While the Municipal Research and Service Center indicates non-retroactive bonuses are legal, government bodies normally set specific expectations that must be met for bonuses to be allocated — which isn’t part of the commissioners’ resolution.
Under the interim final rules for ARPA, all local government employees are considered “eligible workers” for premium pay because they work essential jobs.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was meant to help stimulate the economy in the wake of the pandemic with a wide range of spending, including stimulus checks to individuals as well as funding to state and local governments.
The county commissioners haven’t made any decisions yet about the remaining $15 million.
The WhidbeyHealth hospital district did not receive ARPA funds, but officials are pursuing grants and other funding from the state that could be used for premium pay, according to a hospital spokesman.
The federal government also allotted Oak Harbor $6,578,122, Coupeville $550,480 and Langley $318,229. No decisions have been made among the municipalities about spending the money.