Attorney: DeKalb CEO has authority to raise pay for front-line workers

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and several members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners during a virtual Tuesday morning meeting.
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and several members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners during a virtual Tuesday morning meeting.

Credit: SCREENSHOT

Credit: SCREENSHOT

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond can pay workers more money during the coronavirus pandemic without approval from the Board of Commissioners — as long as he stays within certain budgetary bounds.

That is according to a recent legal opinion from county attorney Viviane Ernstes, who distributed a memo after Thurmond issued his first coronavirus-related executive order on March 23.

The order — which says employees designated as "front-line" workers during the pandemic will be paid time-and-a-half and accrue extra comp time — has become a point of contention in recent days because it could allow for as many as 3,500 county workers to earn higher pay and will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

“I do think there’s broad agreement, there isn’t one commissioner that doesn’t support paying people that have increased risk profiles,” Commissioner Nancy Jester said. “But I think we’ve expanded a little beyond that.”

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In addition to employees in the county’s various public safety agencies, Thurmond’s order allows for potential front-line designation for workers from departments like sanitation, watershed, the medical examiner’s office, road and drainage, IT, parks and more. The idea is that anyone who works a job that’s essential to county operations and can’t be performed remotely is at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes.

If all 3,500 workers in the identified departments earned front-line pay during their full work weeks, the tab could run as high as $9.3 million per month. Thurmond has said that not all 3,500 workers will qualify and those that do may not earn front-line pay during each hour they work.

A recent one-day test run resulted in about $186,000 in extra compensation, officials said. Pay data from the week-plus since Thurmond declared a formal emergency is not yet available, but the test-run shows the figure could be around $5.5 million per month.

Thurmond said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to compensate endangered county workers but pushed back at what he called “the suggestion that somehow all of a sudden I’ve become a spendthrift.”

He believes that, because the county budgeted conservatively, there will be enough wiggle room to make things work without necessitating formal adjustments to the budget. The county budget is also created largely on the departmental level, meaning savings created by the coronavirus in other areas – like travel and utility bills – could be redirected to personnel.

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In her recent memo, the county attorney wrote that Thurmond has the authority to set front-line pay without seeking commission approval “so long as the funds to pay such additional compensation are already in the County budget in areas under his exclusive supervision and control.”

Commissioners like Jester and Jeff Rader aren’t necessarily disputing that authority.

But Rader introduced a resolution this week that would try to keep any additional spending in check and make sure personnel costs are distributed at an even monthly rate. It was deferred to a later meeting.

“The CEO is working from annual budgetary authority, and would not exceed that authority until he exceeds the budget,” Rader wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “However, at an elevated rate of expenditure, that budget could be exhausted before the end of the budget year, necessitating additional appropriation, or an employee furlough or layoffs to reduce expenditures.”