Unions asking for 15% COVID-19 hazard pay; some call that 'ridiculous'

FILE ART - AFSCME workers on strike May 8, 2018

Several unions representing managers, receptionists, engineers, clerks and customer service reps, are formally requesting "hazard pay" -- an ask that is sparking a debate among critics who don't feel that asking for extra pay is OK during a global crisis. 

Kym Anderson, who represents more than 1,000 American Federation of State, County and Municpal Employees in the East Bay, said the main reason workers are asking for money is because too many employees are still being asked to go into the office, when they could be working more safely at home.

Anderson said these workers didn't sign up for this type of danger-  like police officers and first responders do - and they should be compensated for it. 

"We want an acknowledgement that the public sector is stepping up and doing their duty," Anderson said. Her organization represents a wide swath of workers in the Contra Costa County Superior courts, the cities of Pinole and Pittsburg, East Bay MUD, and East Bay Regional Park District. 

 In Contra Costa County specifically, AFSCME workers want  "premium pay" or "hazard pay" as coronavirus claims more lives every day and forces more Americans indoors to curb the spread of the disease. 

So far in the Bay Area, Napa County supervisors are considering the hazard pay idea at a board meeting on Tuesday night. Alameda County and San Francisco supervisors are considering giving employees more leave time instead of direct pay, union officials said. 

At least three unions in Contra Costa County said they believe it is not right to ask for a higher salary during a global crisis. 

"The Deputy Sheriff's Association is extremely upset about union leadership in Contra Costa County asking for money in this crisis," sheriff's deputy union president Shawn Welch told KTVU on Monday. "This is ridiculous. We are public servants. Serve the public and do your part."

He also said the firefighters union and the district attorneys investigators are not behind this effort, either. 

"We didn't ask for more during the fires," Welch said. "This is what we do."

AFSCME isn't the only union asking for more compensation. 

On Monday, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 Lead Representative Sean Stalbaum wrote Contra Costa County Administrator David Twa in an email asking for 15% bump in hazard pay. There were dozens of other unions copied on the email. 

 "We believe it is necessary to provide a COVID-19 Pandemic hazard pay premium to those workers who report to work locations and/or who must continue to interact with the public, personally risking their health and the health of their families," Stalbaum wrote. 

According to Stalbaum, most of his union members do not have the training or the gear, like first responders do, and can't even protect themselves because there isn't enough protective equipment to go around. 

This crisis is unprecedented, and Stalbaum said governments must take notice. Coronavirus is not like an earthquake, fire, flood, or other natural disasters,he said, leaving workers unprepared and vulnerable. 

"Thousands of frontline workers in Contra Costa County," Stalbaum wrote, "are expected to risk their own health and the health of their families to be on the job during this crisis."

In a statement, Contra Costa County spokeswoman Susan Shui wrote: "We are looking at all issues as to how we best support employees, and how we can respond to the needs of our residents."

But in an email obtained by KTVU, Twa's office told the unions that his staff will be "reviewing and determining what we are able to do."

However, he added: "We cannot continue to pay all employees to remain at home for several months."

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Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez