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State Cuts Emergency Pay For 'Essential' Workers

Rachel Baye / WYPR

Thousands of state employees got a pay cut this week, when the state eliminated an emergency pay bump for some of the workers performing jobs classified as "essential" during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Social workers, police and corrections officers, and hospital staff were among those getting an extra $3.13 per hour or an extra $5.15 an hour when they worked in a quarantine unit of people who had tested positive for COVID-19. 


Union leaders were informed of the change Thursday night in a one-line email. 


“Please be advised that Response Pay ended on September 8 and will not be extended,” the email read. There was no explanation for the change.


A second email sent Friday after reporters inquired into the change clarified that staff working in quarantine units will continue to get temporary $5.15 an hour pay boosts. The number of people who work in quarantine units fluctuates, as some workers rotate from quarantine units to other parts of their workplaces.

Patrick Moran, president of the Maryland branch of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, union, called the move “callous.” In a statement, he said the elevated pay had been paid for by federal CARES Act funding, of which there is still $100 million available. 


“With Maryland’s positivity rate climbing and a winter that many believe will exacerbate infections, this decision is a slap in the face to hard working state employees who are most vulnerable,” said Moran, whose union is the largest state employee union.


At least 800 AFSCME members have contracted COVID-19 on the job, according to the union.


Maryland Department of Budget and Management spokesman Nick Pepersack said in a statement that the extra pay was intended “to incentivize essential personnel to work when there were so many unanswered questions about the virus itself and how it spreads” early in the pandemic. 

“With our state moving into the next stage of recovery and more people going back to work, there is less of a need for this temporary program,” Pepersack wrote.

When Gov. Larry Hogan first declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic in mid-March, essential workers were getting double pay, as required by their labor contracts. However, the state stopped paying hazard pay about a week later. Officials said at the time that the state had taken sufficient steps to protect workers from COVID-19, making hazard pay no longer necessary. 

Then at the beginning of April, the unions successfully negotiated for the $3.13 hourly boost that workers were getting until this week. 

“These are extraordinary times and the public health challenge brought about by this pandemic is unprecedented,” Cynthia Kollner, executive director of the state Office of Personnel Services and Benefits wrote in a letter at the time. “We hope that you will agree that these additional pay enhancements are warranted and serve to recognize the dedication of State employees and your members who, because of the nature of their job duties must serve in a front-line capacity to provide vital services to the citizens of Maryland.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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