East Baton Rouge Parish wants to give its employees that were deemed essential workers during the early days of the pandemic a bonus from federal funds — but they're not sure the Louisiana Constitution allows them to.
The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, aims to reward workers who were unable to work from home during the pandemic. The city-parish wants to take advantage of a provision of the law, referred to as “premium pay," but the state constitution specifically bans bonuses for public employees.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has sought Attorney General Jeff Landry's opinion on the issue. Until he weighs in, city-parish officials say they haven't decided exactly who would get the payments or how big they would be.
"I am aware that that there are prohibitions on traditional 'bonuses' being paid to public employees," Broome wrote in a letter to Landry. "We are looking for proper methods to utilize the funding offered such as the American Rescue Plan to compensate these employees for their extraordinary efforts during the emergency."
The city-parish has set aside $4 million for the payments from a pot of $73 million that makes up the second wave of funding from the coronavirus relief bill.
If Landry signs off on the move, departments within the city-parish will certify who their essential workers are and classify them under two categories: In-person or teleworker. Those city-parish workers who are designated “essential” will receive a one-time payment with no benefit to their retirement plans, Broome wrote in a memo to Metro Council.
“The two essential pay classifications will allow for the compensation of those employees who continued to perform their work activities and/or endured the heightened risk of performing essential work during the shutdown period,” Broome wrote.
In question is an article of the Louisiana Constitution that outlaws bonuses for public employees in the state. Previous opinions from the AG’s office have upheld the provision, ruling that public employees may only be awarded with salary increases in the future, not additional compensation for past work.
But a memo from the U.S. Treasury Department says the coronavirus relief package specifically allows for the payments as a reward for essential workers who have “put their physical well-being at risk to meet the daily needs of their communities.”
The memo says local governments may direct the funds to a broad range of workers who must be “physically present” at their jobs, including janitors, public health and safety staff, transit workers and school staff. The money can also be sent to private employers in the form of grants to award workers at nursing homes, hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants, among others, according to the memo.
It’s unclear if city-parish workers who teleworked are eligible for the payment under the Treasury Department’s guidance.
The city-parish is awaiting Landry’s opinion before making the final determination of who the $4 million will go to, Armstrong said when asked about the guidance.
Baton Rouge officials on Tuesday touted a series of projects to prevent flooding across the parish, emphasizing one that they say will vastly …
The $4 million for the payments is a small part of a broad, $73 million of funding priorities for Broome’s administration from the second wave of the act's funding.
The largest designation is $20 million is for drainage improvements, on top of the $22 million that was used for drainage from the first wave of funds earlier this year. The second-largest pot, $14.2 million, will go toward initiatives aimed at curbing violence in the parish, more than half of which will be spent on replacing Baton Rouge Police Department vehicles.
Of the $167 million in federal aid headed to East Baton Rouge, the city-parish wants to spend $20 million on drainage upgrades and $1 million …
The city-parish has now received roughly 57% of the $167 million it expects to get from the coronavirus relief package, Chief Administrative Office Darryl Gissel said. The rest of the money will arrive in 2022.
Broome’s outline for the latest round of funding must be approved by Metro Council in the coming weeks. A vote on the outline is expected Oct. 27.