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Forsyth County Commissioners unanimously approved Tuesday new compensation for employees at risk of exposure to COVID-19.
During a special-called meeting, the board approved an additional payment of $500 a month for employees whose job role puts them in contact with the public and $250 a month for employees who cannot practice social distancing or have to enter occupied private residences.
The extra pay will total $1 million to a total of 620 employees, with $660,000 for Forsyth County Sheriff's Office employees and $340,000 for county employees, including fire department personnel. The payments will cover six pay periods retroactive to March 19.
If the state's declaration of emergency is lifted before the six pay periods are done, the compensation will continue until the end of that period.
Which employees receive the extra compensation will be decided by Chairwoman Laura Semanson and County Manager Eric Johnson except those under the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, which will be decided by Sheriff Ron Freeman.
“It's primarily the sheriff's office with the potential for 400 positions. That's recognizing that there may be some new hires over the next couple of months that we want to be eligible for this,” Johnson said. “Within fire, we're looking for the front-line people that are having contact with the public. At this point, we have Emergency Management 911... We are considering a very small number of people at Dial-A-Ride and Senior Services that are front-line people, but overwhelmingly this is public safety personnel.”
Johnson said the sheriff's office wanted to fill vacancies and any new hires would only receive the additional payment from their hire date.
Commissioners also discussed, but took no action on, how employees might start returning to work in county roles and what steps businesses should take before reopening in light of Gov. Brian Kemp's announcement Monday that some businesses, including restaurants, nail salons and gyms, can resume in-person services under stringent social distancing guidelines.
“We're going to start to engage [department] directors to see how we can safely start to expand access to county services,” Johnson said. “In some cases, we've gotten good at having some people work from home. In other cases, we may need to have greater access for the public, so program by program, we'll start looking at where do we have the opportunity to safely engage the public, but we realize we have to have a plan for the long haul.”
One issue with county employees returning to work is the shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“One thing that I think is going to be very important is providing personal protective equipment as available and appropriate to the function or location of the worker,” said Chris Grimes, the county's emergency management director. “As you know, PPE is still hard to get, so that's going to be something that a lot of businesses are still trying to get.”
Before employees return to work, commissioners said they were awaiting further guidance from the governor's office
District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said she had heard from Mark Hamilton, a former lawmaker representing Forsyth County and now part of Kemp's senior staff, that guidelines for restaurants would soon be available and she assumed the same for theaters, two industries impacted by the order.
Once the county has those guidelines, commissioners said they would distribute them to the public via the county's website and social media.
Along with restaurants and theaters, Kemp's order also set the stage for reopening nail salons, bowling alleys and churches, which commissioners had some concerns about due to social distancing.
“I've not been in a church in a long time that can do social distancing and have a service,” Mills said.
District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper said churches should continue, as they have in recent weeks, to have alternative services.
“This is temporary. This will be over soon as we are already taking steps,” she said, “so in that short amount of time, perhaps churches could have staggered services where you don't have everyone showing up at the same services in order to honor the social distancing. Another option is if the weather permitted, doing services outside for the social distancing, so I think there are some options. Churches will have to be creative for the short amount of time."