Wash. county ends COVID-19 hazard pay for deputies, COs

Thurston County Commissioner John Hutchings offered strong words on the lack of precautions taken by some deputies and corrections officers


By Sara Gentzler
The Olympian

THURSTON COUNTY, Wash. — Against the backdrop of a COVID-19 outbreak at the county jail, Thurston County Commissioner John Hutchings offered strong words Tuesday on the lack of precautions taken by some Sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers while reversing a pandemic pay bump for such employees that’s been in place since March.

At Tuesday’s commission work session, county Health Officer Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek had reported that a total of nine inmates and four staff have tested positive for the coronavirus at Thurston County Corrections Facility in Tumwater, with results still coming in from a second round of testing.

Hutchings said in a phone interview that he learned, in the midst of the jail outbreak, that many corrections officers hadn’t been wearing masks despite a mandate. (Photo/Getty Images)
Hutchings said in a phone interview that he learned, in the midst of the jail outbreak, that many corrections officers hadn’t been wearing masks despite a mandate. (Photo/Getty Images)

Thurston County patrol deputies, corrections deputies and technicians in the adult jail and juvenile detention facility, court security officers, and some staff in the county Coroner’s Office have been receiving a “hazard pay” increase of 5% since March 25 because they are potentially at higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19.

The decision to grant the hazard pay was made and and has been affirmed periodically by split commission votes. Voting yes each time had been Commissioners Gary Edwards and John Hutchings, who both come from law enforcement backgrounds, while Commissioner Tye Menser voted against the pay increase, saying it’s not good policy.

County Manager Ramiro Chavez consistently advised against the increase, including on Tuesday, when he said it creates an uneven playing field for county staff who are responding to the pandemic.

Hutchings, who worked as an Olympia police officer before becoming Police Chief in Tenino, shifted to vote with Menser on Tuesday, while Edwards continued to support the hazard pay.

“After 35 years in law enforcement, it was an easy decision for me to make to award hazard pay, not as a benefit but as a temporary recognition of the hazards that corrections officers and Sheriff’s deputies face,” Hutchings said. “And yet now the Sheriff and some staff make this an easy decision for me to reverse.”

In his statement and a phone interview with The Olympian afterward, Hutchings mentioned two specific documents that informed his decision: an Aug. 19 health order from Dr. Abdelmalek and a June email from Sheriff John Snaza to former interim Health Officer Dr. Diana Yu.

In the health order, obtained by The Olympian, Abdelmalek mandated the jail take a list of precautions. The first item on the list includes that “officers, staff and inmates shall wear masks at all times while in the facility.”

Hutchings said in a phone interview that he learned, in the midst of the jail outbreak, that many corrections officers hadn’t been wearing masks despite that mandate from the Health Officer, state Department of Health, and state Department of Labor & Industries.

Inmates in one of the jail’s open-concept dormitories and their loved ones had reported to The Olympian that, prior to the outbreak, inmates hadn’t been following public health-recommended guidelines — inmates and officers didn’t wear masks and inmates didn’t stay 6 feet apart.

Hutchings read about the lack of mask-wearing in The Olympian, he said, and was able to confirm it.

In another health order, issued Aug. 24 and obtained by The Olympian, Abdelmalek added more precautions. The text of the order includes that two dorms and a maximum-security area had been affected by the outbreak, and that there was “reason to believe there is potential widespread transmission of COVID-19” within the jail.

In authorizing hazard pay, Hutchings told The Olympian, he would expect staff to make “reciprocal efforts to mitigate their exposure, but there would seem to be none.”

In the June 15 email to Dr. Yu, which Hutchings said he learned about last week, the Sheriff wrote that his department would not help serve quarantine orders, which Hutchings said can be served to a person who is not voluntarily quarantining.

Snaza wrote that the office was unable to assist with that kind of request, due to the impact on his “limited staff.” Protocols would require a 14-day period of self-isolation after potential exposure, according to the email, which would decrease deputies when “the current civil unrest” has created a higher personnel demand. The Sheriff wrote that he’d be “happy to discuss alternatives” that don’t lead to direct staff exposure.

“That’s the same staff receiving hazard pay, who may or may not be masked up,” Hutchings said.

The Sheriff’s refusal resulted in a civilian serving a civil quarantine order, according to Hutchings.

“This flies in the face of common sense, to continue hazard pay. Money is not going to protect one from COVID-19 exposure alone,” Hutchings said. “The hazard pay was an effort to recognize inherent dangers of exposure, yet the hazard pay didn’t serve that purpose, apparently. So, with those things, my decision is to discontinue the hazard pay.”

Later in the meeting, Hutchings circled back to say he “loves and respects” Sheriff’s Office employees, and that his earlier comments were specifically in reference to hazard pay.

The change takes effect immediately, County Manager Chavez told The Olympian.

Between March 25 and Aug. 15, the county paid a little over $303,000 in hazard pay, Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell wrote in an email to The Olympian Tuesday. Campbell, who also serves as Budget Director, estimated the county would pay about an additional $30,000 for the second half of August.

The county plans to seek reimbursement from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Sheriff Snaza is facing a recall effort initiated by Arthur West, stemming from a Sheriff’s Office statement released in the wake of the statewide mask mandate, in which Snaza said the office would not criminally enforce it.

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©2020 The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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