ELLSWORTH — All city employees will receive $1,000 in pandemic premium pay after councilors voted 6-1 to approve the measure on Jan. 10.
With $1,000 premium pay already approved for about 28 police and fire department personnel, the total cost of the employee payout is roughly $85,000 to $90,000. The funds will come out of the approximately $860,000 the city will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
“We’re giving one-eighth of it to city employees,” Councilor Marc Blanchette said before voting against the motion. “The Joe Taxpayers are going to say, ‘Yeah, they took care of their own.’”
Noting that the city has through 2024 to commit the funds and until 2025 to spend them, Blanchette added, “This is wrong. I think we’re rushing headstrong into it.”
Councilor Steve O’Halloran had raised the premium pay issue for all staff in December, but councilors denied it in a 4-2 vote, with Chairman Dale Hamilton requesting department heads first make their case for the extra pay to the council.
In November, councilors, with some reluctance, approved $1,000 in premium pay for Fire Department and police staff, a match required by county officials to release an additional $2,000 per first responder from county ARPA funds. Then, Hamilton faulted the Hancock County Commissioners for forcing the city’s hand, stating, “Everybody in this country has been facing the same challenges. And here we are now with taxpayer money trying to figure out who are we going to reward in local and county government because there’s a disconnect in terms of these kinds of discussions.”
At that time, Councilor Gene Lyons agreed, saying, “If this passes, I think it leaves 9,000 taxpayers out of everything. They’re just as important as people who work for the city. They pay their wages.”
After hearing from department heads and City Manager Glenn Moshier, both councilors, along with councilors O’Halloran, Michelle Kaplan, Casey Hanson and Robert Miller, voted for payments for all city employees. Councilors pointed to a need for equitable treatment of employees.
City staff have watched as city fire and police staff received premium pay approval and the County Commissioners approved $1,875 in pandemic pay for county employees. Some neighboring towns, like Blue Hill, have also approved premium pandemic pay for town staff.
“This all comes down to you guys gave two departments hazard pay. Everyone in the building feels now our positions are not as important,” Facilities Manager Steve Joyal told councilors. “This is all about the precedent that was set. We don’t feel like we were treated fairly.”
City staff is being hit harder now than any other time in the pandemic, Moshier noted, with six employees currently out with COVID-19. But the difference, Hanson said, was that in early pandemic days, there was not sufficient personal protective equipment and no vaccinations against COVID-19 that help stave off transmission, extreme illness and death. At that time, many city staff members worked from home — except for maintenance staff, Joyal noted.
“I’m truly mixed on this from the equity perspective from the community,” Hamilton said before voting in favor of the measure. “As a city body, it’s hard to give money to employees when other community members suffered just as much.”
Hanson had sponsored a discussion on the use and goals of ARPA funds in December that was tabled. Her agenda item this month to schedule a workshop on the issue was tabled, as the meeting ran into its fourth hour. So was a request for extra winter pay for public works employees. Public Works Director Lisa Sekulich said she requested the stipends to help retain employees who are fielding offers from the private sector offering higher wages.