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Pima County gov't workers get extension to COVID leave after unanimous BoS vote

Pima County government employees will continue to be able to use extra paid leave if they're infected with COVID-19 or stay home to deal with outbreaks in schools, after a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors.

Workers who have unused pandemic leave will remain eligible to use it under an extension of the county's pandemic benefit, which was set to run out at the end of March. But the county board rejected a proposal to allow unused leave to be paid out to staff.

The additional time comes after a 5-0 vote by the supervisors on Tuesday that acknowledged those county workers who have continued to work through the pandemic.

Full-time county employees will be able to keep the 80 hours of pandemic outbreak leave provided under federal pandemic response bills in April 2020.

Those unused hours would have turned into regular sick leave, but the move will keep them in county workers' separate pandemic-vacation leave banks, and lift a 2023 deadline to use them. Employees who leave their positions can receive a payout for unused hours at their regular wage rate, as with other unused leave and vacation hours, but the Board chose to not allow unused pandemic leave to be paid out to staff who are still working for the county.

The board voted to adopt a less-rewarding option for expanding COVID sick leave. Another option would have paid out more than $4.4 million to almost 2,300 county workers who haven’t used their full allotment of pandemic leave. That option would also have given 83 full-time employees who were given leave during the pandemic an extra 40 hours of paid vacation time and 16 part-time and 162 intermittent employees who were furloughed an extra 20 hours of paid vacation.

The board had put the item off twice since Feb. 15 to give county administration time to gather more information. Supervisor Adelita Grijalva had asked it to be delayed in February because of the high price of the $4.4 million. She also questioned whether a payout that would be the same across the board would be equitable, given the different pay grade of county employees.

“If you’re making over $70,000 a year here in Pima County,” she said in last month's meeting. “You were probably more likely to be able to work from home and telecommute than people who have to come to work everyday and were more likely to get COVID… I think doing an across-the-board payout is not an equitable way to do this.”

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Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, agreed, saying $4.4 million is “quite an expensive amount of money,” especially as it would be paid with county funds as opposed to federal COVID relief funds. He also asserted that it’s the job of county workers to show up and that they shouldn’t be paid extra “for doing what they’re already being paid for.”

Christy and Grijalva were both satisfied with the second option that county administration brought to the board at Tuesday's meeting, which was an alternative to the cash payouts to employees with unused pandemic leave.

Chairwoman Sharon Bronson noted the agreement between Grijalva, a Democrat who represents a large section of Tucson, and her Republican colleague, jokingly saying "I'm shocked."

"It happens sometimes," Grijalva said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the extension of pandemic leave.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva at the Board of Supervisors' meeting on Tuesday. Grijalva had previously asked to delay a pandemic leave payout because of the cost and concerns that it would be inequitable.