Hudson County employees pleaded their cases to receive hazardous pay for work they performed over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic during Thursday evening’s board of commissioners meeting.
“We’re asking the county to pay the members of Local 2306 and Local 1697 hazardous duty pay now that you will have received aid from the American Rescue Act. The idea of paying hazardous duty pay is not a concept where there’s disagreement,” said AFSCME Council 63 Executive Director Steve Tully.
“In fact, the county initially came to us last year and initiated negotiations to pay our members for hazardous duty pay from March 27th to June 26th of 2020. The reason that they did that is the county recognized that these employees during the pandemic were worth of this hazardous duty pay.”
Tully continued that negotiations halted since the county said they couldn’t afford it, but that should no longer be an issue since the county received $130.41 million from the American Rescue Act, according to U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-NJ).
Other union representatives also called in to question was stalling the process.
“On June 25th, 2020, we were asked by Sean Dias to submit [a] hazardous pay agreement. We submitted three items: eligibility, duration … and compensation. In July, we were told that it was off the table,” Local 2306 Family Services and Housing Community Reintegration President Frances Cintron told the governing body.
Cintron asserted that since the state of emergency was declared just over a year ago, her department processed about 22,000 SNAP cases, 800 general assistance claims, and “thousands and thousands” of Medicaid claims – on top of processing rental assistance claims to prevent homelessness.
She continued that the amount of money the two unions combined were seeking for hazardous pay is under $80,000.
Additionally, District 1199J National Hospital and Union Health Care Employees President Susan Cleary pointed out that her colleagues are working at the county correctional facility, psych hospital, performing building maintenance, security – among other essential jobs.
“Many, many of our members became ill with COVID and some passed away unfortunately. I would simply say that our members have met their commitment to the county, to the residents of the county, to their jobs – they continue to show up – I don’t think it’s much to ask the county to honor its commitment to them and do the right thing here.”
When asked by County Commissioner Al Cifelli (D-9) how common practice hazardous pay has been, Cleary, a Bayonne resident, said that their counterparts at a nursing home in Passaic County had already received that last year.
Cifelli said that he would like to see projections from the county before he felt comfortable taking a vote on the matter, regardless how much money is or isn’t coming from President Joe Biden’s (D) federal relief plan.
County Commissioner Bill O’Dea (D-2) chimed in that he believed that all eligible county workers could be compensated for under $5 million.
Another public speaker, County Corrections Officer Carlos Restrano, Jr., said he was “healthy, fit, [and] sharp with no medical problems” until he contracted the coronavirus on March 21st, 2020.
He said he suffered from the virus for over a month and has since developed hypertension, migraines, cognitive deficiencies, PTSD, and more, and still yet to feel 100 percent.
Furthermore, Lloyd Hoeltzell, a full-time nurse at Meadowview Psychiatric Hospital in Secaucus, said he and others in the nursing department feel the current conditions are “unfair.”
He stated that in order to receive full-time pay, nurses must complete 80 hours in a two-week period, while others in the same facility have been able to work just 56 hours in two weeks to earn full-time compensation – as well as being able to receive overtime.
Closing out the public portion, County Corrections PBA President Local 109 President Derrick James said that Restrano’s experience was not an isolated incident and that others had experienced similar illnesses and ailments from COVID-19.
“I would caution the commissioners, the law department, personnel to actually reach out and find out what’s going on with some of my guys because he is not the only one,” he said, arguing that the county already received $117.5 million in federal relief last year and then over $130 million in 2021.
Therefore, there should be ample funds available to allocate towards hazardous pay.
According to County Counsel Donato Battista, the county began meeting with all their unions back in March 2020 and they raised the issue of hazardous pay before discussions on the subject commenced.
“At some point in time, some of the unions said that the weekly meeting weren’t necessary. We said to them that if any issues arise, all you need to do is contact me, Sean Dias – whose the director of labor relations – to convene a meeting with whomever need to be present,” Battista said.
From O’Dea’s perspective, he said it is clear that there “was a sincere commitment” to do hazard pay at $50 a day for non-law enforcement and $75 a day for law enforcement, claiming that “outside pressure” put the kibosh on those plans.
“We have the money now: we have $130 million. You’re looking at $4 to $5 million that could come out of that,” he began.
“Unlike the original $117 million, to the county exec’s credit, that decided after the county took I believe it was 15 percent of the funding and allocated the rest to the municipalities, most of those municipalities have been more than made whole from what they were before.”
The county commissioners took no formal action on the matter before adjourning their meeting.