By Adam Pagnucco.
In justifying the county’s creation of a $4 million per pay period emergency pay liability, representatives of county government depict it as a good deal for taxpayers. They say that the county’s collective bargaining agreements set much higher levels of emergency pay than the amount the county is now paying, so $4 million a pay period is actually a bargain. Setting aside whether the county’s existing emergency pay provisions actually apply to a pandemic – there is some doubt about that – the county’s claim is called into question by the emergency compensation program of one of its sister agencies, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, commonly referred to as Park and Planning.
MCGEO is the largest county employee union of both Montgomery County Government and Park and Planning. It is led by the fearsome Gino Renne, who has a long and famous history of playing hardball with politicians. The union’s prior collective bargaining agreements with both the county and Park and Planning had preexisting emergency pay provisions which the county cited in providing COVID pay. Unlike MCGEO’s preexisting agreement with the county, its preexisting agreement with Park and Planning has an emergency pay provision explicitly referring to “epidemics.” Despite that fact, negotiations between MCGEO and the two agencies yielded outcomes that were worlds apart.
MCGEO’s agreement with the county
Signed on April 3, the agreement gives employees in “front facing onsite work” an extra $10 per hour and employees in “back office onsite work” an extra $3 per hour. Teleworking employees do not receive extra pay. The differential counts for the purpose of calculating overtime pay.
The agreement is indefinite. Here is its language on duration:
This Agreement may re-open on June 20, 2020. However, if the declared Maryland State of Emergency related to COVID-19 extends beyond that time, the terms of this Agreement shall continue, or after collectively bargaining with MCGEO, will be modified based upon the circumstances at the time. In the event that the declared Maryland State of Emergency related to COVID-19 is rescinded before June 20, 2020, the date of the Declaration’s rescission shall be considered the last day of this Agreement, notwithstanding the pay periods indicated above defining when the COVID-19 Differential will be paid.
The county could renegotiate the agreement if MCGEO agrees to do it. Otherwise, the agreement lasts as long as the state’s declared emergency does. As of this writing, the emergency continues and so does the agreement. County council staff has previously noted that it provides by far the most generous COVID pay of any jurisdiction in the region.
MCGEO’s agreements with Park and Planning
MCGEO has had two memorandums of understanding and six agreements on the COVID emergency with Park and Planning through late January. Their effective dates are:
MOU signed 3/15/20
Agreement 1: 5/4/20 – 6/30/20
MOU signed 7/2/20
Agreement 2: 7/10/20 – 8/8/30
Agreement 3: 8/5/20 – 8/29/20
Agreement 4: 9/8/20 – 10/3/20
Agreement 5: 10/5/20 – 11/28/20
Agreement 6: 11/25/20 – 1/30/21
Of the agreements, only the first (lasting through June 30) contained extra pay. That agreement gave an extra $2.75 per hour for “onsite work” and an extra $4.50 per hour for child care aides performing “front facing onsite work.” Unlike the county’s agreement, emergency pay was not included in the calculation of overtime pay. The later agreements provided varying levels of leave and paid time off and have other language on health and safety, teleworking and scheduling but they do not provide emergency pay. Let’s note that time away from work does more to protect employee health than requiring them to report on-site with a pay differential.
No one will ever accuse MCGEO President Gino Renne of being an ineffective negotiator. He has delivered outstanding value to his members for many years. The difference here is in the negotiating strategies taken by the two agencies. Park and Planning utilized a series of short, time-limited agreements to adjust its compensation to changing circumstances. The county signed one open-ended agreement that locked in extra pay negotiated during the height of COVID’s first wave. Gino signed the agreements with both agencies despite their vast differences.
That’s not all. The county’s agreements with the police and fire fighters both provide indefinite emergency pay of $10 per hour for onsite work, with the extra pay counting for calculations of overtime. Of Park and Planning’s five agreements with its police union through late November, only one – lasting through June 30 – provided emergency pay and that was for $4.50 an hour. Once again, Park and Planning got a different result with a different negotiating strategy.
The results of these differing agreements are two-fold. First, there is a huge gap in the costs faced by the agencies. The county has about 9 times the employees of Park and Planning. The county has paid $4 million per pay period since April, which translates to $78 million as of last week. Park and Planning paid a total of $400,917.
Second, there is a tremendous inequity between county employees (many of whom are receiving an extra $3 or $10 per hour) and Park and Planning employees (who are getting paid time off and leave but not extra pay since June 30). That inequity extends to employees of MCPS and Montgomery College, who are not getting anything resembling the county’s pay. Expect these employees to ask – with justification – why they aren’t getting the same extra money as county workers.
The question of how to pay for the county’s huge new liability – one that was avoided by Park and Planning – will be a big factor in writing the next operating budget. We shall find out the consequences of all this when it arrives on March 15.