Pa. county council votes down hazard pay push for COs
"It's important to fight for workers at the same time we're fighting for all vulnerable populations," an official said
By Adam Smeltz
ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — Allegheny County Council rejected a motion Tuesday seeking hazard pay for corrections officers at the county jail, Downtown, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members knocked down the effort in a 6-4 vote, with members Thomas Baker, Tom Duerr and Paul Klein abstaining. Council President Patrick Catena and member DeWitt Walton were absent.
Sam DeMarco, who voted no, said the motion sounded reasonable. But the county needs to work with "duly elected" union leadership, he said.
He said it is his understanding that union leaders representing Allegheny County Jail officers have not approached the county administration about the pay issue. An attorney who has worked with the union did not immediately respond to a message after the meeting.
Sponsored by council members Bethany Hallam and Olivia "Liv" Bennett, the motion followed an online petition drive that collected more than 500 digital signatures urging a pandemic hazard bonus for the officers. Had it passed, the motion would have pressed the county administration to pursue hazard pay "with all deliberate speed."
Language in the motion did not include a particular dollar figure for the officers, who have numbered upward of 400. Among 289 workers at the facility who have been tested for COVID-19, 102 tested positive, according to jail figures listed as current on Sunday.
Ms. Hallam said the corrections officers are among those most susceptible to COVID-19. Contracted medical staffers at the jail have already received boosts in pay during the pandemic, she said.
"It's important to fight for workers at the same time we're fighting for all vulnerable populations," said Ms. Hallam, a member of the county's Jail Oversight Board.
Petition leader Brian Englert, a jail employee, said in a letter to council that corrections workers elsewhere have received extra pay during the pandemic — including in Michigan, Alabama and South Carolina.
Corrections officers at the Allegheny County lockup were asking for a "bare minimum" of $4,000 apiece, or an extra $100 a week covering 40 pandemic weeks, Mr. Englert wrote in the letter.
About a dozen other hazard pay supporters sent letters read aloud at the Tuesday council meeting. One indicated hazard pay would help alleviate stress; another referenced being in close quarters with inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19; and someone else referred to mandatory overtime in the facility.
The matter of pandemic compensation has been contentious in the corrections system. In Columbiana County, Ohio, officers at the federal prison in Elkton have brought legal action seeking hazard pay.
Corrections officers employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections are not receiving any form of hazard pay, a spokeswoman said. Among several county jails in southwestern Pennsylvania that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette approached about compensation policies, two that responded — in Beaver and Washington counties — confirmed their corrections officers are not receiving hazard pay.
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