Premium pay information
The Journal staff
WALHALLA — Nearly 500 Oconee County employees received premium pay checks in June, thanks to a federal pandemic relief program.
The names of the employees and amounts each received were provided by the county after The Journal submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request this summer. Employees who worked from March 20, 2020, to Oct. 4, 2021, were eligible for the money. Those who teleworked from home were not eligible, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Oconee County received $15.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021. The money was for investments in infrastructure, replacing negative economic impacts of the pandemic and premium pay for essential workers.
The Journal has reported extensively on the money given to infrastructure projects, opting to wait to obtain the full scope of all local premium pay allotments.
The county designated $1.9 million for premium pay for employees the county claims followed federal guidelines on eligibility.
A total of $1.691 million was doled out among 494 employees for an average benefit of $3,424, with the largest single amount given to one employee being $7,892 and the smallest being $23. The remainder of the $1.9 million — about $276,000 — was held for taxes, health insurance and retirement benefits, according to county administrator Amanda Brock.
Premium pay names released
The county was initially hesitant to provide the names of all the employees who received the money to The Journal in June, but an attorney with the South Carolina Press Association said the money was not exempt from FOIA because it was a form of special compensation. Officials complied with the request and released the names in July.
In an August interview with The Journal, Brock said employees who worked from home weren’t eligible for the money. She said there were fewer than five ineligible employees. Brock and county attorney David Root did not receive premium pay.
If an employee worked from home for a week and then returned, for example, Brock said they would only be eligible for the time they were in county offices. There were two employees who worked from home, one of whom was pregnant.
“Thank goodness, in a strange way, it was the only person in the county out of our 560 employees that was pregnant during this time,” she said. “There was so much unknown at that time.”
That conflicts with statements made to The Journal by several county employees, some active and some who have left the government. Those sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said county offices were barren of personnel for several months during the height of the pandemic.
During the 80 weeks in the calculation period, an employee working a normal 40-hour work week would have logged about 3,200 eligible hours. Ninety employees logged more time than that. That was primarily in law enforcement and emergency services, but three rock quarry employees and one parks, recreation and tourism employee reported more time. The highest total came in at 5,236 hours, just more than 65 hours per week, for several EMS workers.
Brock said hours were kept electronically or by paper — like signing in at the rock quarry — to calculate time eligible for hazard pay.
When asked how the formula was used to differentiate what amounts employees were paid, Brock said “it’s just a different methodology for different divisions.”
The 494 employees who received money were lumped into two categories. The first was the lower-risk job level, where hours were multiplied by 50 cents, and the other was the higher-risk job level, where hours were multiplied by $1.50. She said the method is categorically outlined by the U.S. Treasury federal funding guidelines.
“The $1.50s were anyone who had within their job responsibilities no choice to be at a higher level of risk than those that weren’t,” she said. “They were put at a higher risk because they had to meet face-to-face. The detention center staff, law enforcement, emergency services … where we had other offices that had the ability to not be face-to-face (with COVID-19-related upgrades like plexiglass).”
Brock said the finance and human resources departments were integral in determining formulas for pay, and Root worked “very closely” with other county staff to be sure proper guidelines were followed.
“That’s public money, and these are public employees,” she said. “You have to weigh your responsibilities very carefully and take things like this very seriously, but I did rely heavily on staff, as I always do.”
Brock also said the county was “never actually closed to the public” during the pandemic, another statement that contradicts what sources have said.
“We had limited access to this (administrative) building and we had limited access at the libraries, but we never actually closed the facility down,” Brock said. “What we did do was implement a system. At the time, we had a sheriff’s officer that was here working as a security coordinator.
“So if you wanted a tax appeal document, instead of coming through the front door and walking all the way through the building, what we would do is … we had documents at every single entrance here and someone manning each of those entrances. Statutorily, we’re not allowed to close certain divisions of government — ever.”
She added county employees were “doing everything that it took within our capability at the time to provide the service to the citizens they expected.”
The county briefly shuttered government meetings to the public for almost three months in the early response to the virus, but allowed 20 percent capacity (34 people) in at a time from June 2020 to May 2021 under South Carolina’s state of emergency order.
Archived Journal reports from 2020 through January 2022 — generally around the holidays — show offices such as the probate court, treasurer and auditor offices were closed temporarily at times after positive COVID cases, but payments could be made online or via the county drive-thru.
Elliott, Hart on pay
County council chairman John Elliott said he hadn’t reviewed the premium pay list, but shared he was comfortable with formulas used for the allotments. Elliott added he hadn’t heard any reports of employees working from home and being paid extra.
“We’re like a board of directors. She’s like the CEO, so we have to trust what she does,” Elliott said of Brock and the county’s calculation method.
Councilman Glenn Hart also said he didn’t look in detail at a list that was provided to him of the premium pay after The Journal requested it and he didn’t feel comfortable commenting on whether the funds were used properly. He did, however, say he was aware of one department that was teleworking from home — employees in geographic information systems.
“I can understand how that would be,” Hart said of reports employees working from home were being paid with premium pay money.
Hart also said he was in favor of an audit of the funds, pointing out he was “chastised by the auditor (Christy Hubbard) on Facebook” this summer when he questioned county employees receiving raises and premium pay bonuses — which he coined as two “birthdays.”
“I would for the simple reason that I was questioning that about the birthdays, if you remember,” he said of an audit. “Just seemed like to me that was another door opened for them to spend that money on. How many people that have a regular job got that ARPA money that were out doing their job and facing the same dangers everybody else was and not getting nothing from it?”
If he were to receive reports of employees working from home that were paid, Elliott said he would consult with Brock before any talk of an audit.
County employees also had access to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that provided up to 10 weeks of pay coverage at two-thirds the employee’s regular pay rate for any employee or employee’s family member who was infected with COVID-19 that forced the employee to stay home due to illness or take care of a family. Citing federal health privacy guidelines, Brock didn’t reveal the names of employees who used the program, but did provide the overall number and hours used, with 360 employees testing positive for COVID and 21,629 hours used in the federal program.
Oconee was responsible for the remaining third, but employees donated about 4,000 hours to a sick bank Brock started with 200 of her own hours to help cover for anyone who was out on leave. She said about eight family members of staff workers died from COVID-19.
Oconee cities also rewarded employees
The Journal also obtained premium pay allotments from the cities of Seneca, Walhalla and Westminster, which each tapped into their smaller pot of ARPA funds to reward employees.
Seneca spent slightly more than $1 million to send premium pay to 181 employees. Walhalla used more than $420,000 in federal funding to pay about 80 city workers. Exactly $40,000 was split up among nearly 50 Westminster employees.
To see the lists of the three cities’ premium pay awards, click on this report on upstatetoday.com.