When healthcare workers began treating patients sick with COVID-19, some were paid hazard pay for working in potentially life-threatening conditions.
That wasn’t the case for employees of the Hidalgo County Health Department who are now calling on the county to pay them retroactively for their work in 2020 in response to the pandemic.
During a county commissioners court meeting held Sept. 28, a group of employees presented their requests:
>> additional compensation of $10,000 for essential or front-line workers assigned to COVID-19 emergency duties in 2020;
>> have emergency leave hours be reinstated and newly available to all workers;
>> provide transparency through the decision-making process that directly affects workers.
Marissa Badillo, a licensed nurse with the county’s tuberculosis clinic, was among the group that spoke before the commissioners.
“When COVID hit, I guess it took everybody by surprise,” Badillo said. “We didn’t have any training, I don’t think anybody did anywhere, and we just took everything under our wings and we flew and we learned together.”
There were numerous times, she said, that their supervisor and even they had to buy their own protective equipment because there wasn’t enough.
“I, along with my other colleagues there at the TB clinic, we were not only doing the TB, we were also doing COVID so it was scary, it was really scary to think that we could possibly become ill and bring it to our family members,” Badillo said, “especially those that are single parents, those of us that have young children.”
They were not able to work from home, she noted, and often worked long hours when it came to administering vaccines.
“Some of the clinic staff members, especially those that are supervisors, had to stay behind to accommodate some of the community’s citizens that work late or couldn’t make it because they work an 8 to 5 job,” she said. “We had to accommodate these citizens to try to protect everyone as best as we could.”
Part of the work also included taking calls from members of the public who were desperate for answers when information about the coronavirus was still limited.
“The outtake clinic is not my clinic but I did cover the outtake clinic, I was answering phone calls,” Badillo said, pointing out that this was on top of her regular duties. “We also did family planning, we did child wellness visits, did regular vaccines for children that don’t have insurance and so on top of the COVID, we were doing everything else at the same time. So it was an added assignment that we had.”
That work also took a psychological toll on them, she said, often having to counsel and comfort people over the phone and trying to educate them on health guidelines.
“And my hats off to my supervisors for gathering us our information,” Badillo said. “Because we were all learning together.”
Flor Martinez, a tuberculosis epidemiologist and one of Badillo’s colleagues, emphasized the significance of the work they did during the pandemic.
“The health department was really the epicenter of dealing with the pandemic,” she said, adding that the reports of COVID-19 cases within the county were possible because of them.
“All of that data and all of that information that was gathered and given to the public,” she said. “The reason that we knew how the pandemic was going, not only because of the national and the global news but locally, was because of the efforts and the labor of the health department that put all of that together.”
She said the data came from not only epidemiologists, but also from the outside clinics, telephone calls they received at the emergency call center, from hospitals, patients and community members.
Their request from the county for retroactive pay came after the county received $212 million through the American Rescue Plan Act which, according to the National Association of Counties, allows premium pay to be provided retroactively for work performed at any time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, marked as Jan. 27, 2020, where those workers have yet to be compensated adequately for work previously performed.
The county has approved premium pay for all county employees that will be paid out in November, but that does not take into account the work they performed in 2020, only their work in 2021.
“We don’t feel that this is right because it’s based off of future hours worked in-person, but we already worked those hours all of last year,” Martinez said, “so we feel like this current proposal leaves too much room for some workers that really were at risk (in 2020), to be ineligible to receive those funds, and I really don’t think that’s fair.”
Another point of concern were the 80 emergency leave hours they received last year to be used in case they contracted COVID-19. However, those hours were taken away in 2021.
“We don’t have them anymore but the pandemic is still going on,” she said. “There were some people (that) didn’t use those emergency hours but it’s still scary to see them taken away because there’s still a chance to contract the virus and there’s still a chance, even if you’re fully vaccinated, that you may get sick.”
The chances of the employees having their requests approved seems unlikely as both Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez and County Commissioner for Pct. 2 Eddie Cantu said it couldn’t be done.
“We cannot pay county employees other than what the policy is for the county,” Cortez said. “Whatever our employees worked during COVID, they got paid within the policies that the county has to pay county employees.”
“In addition to that, all employees of the county will be receiving hazard pay provided that they qualify for it, including those in the health department,” Cortez added, referring to the premium pay the county employees will be receiving in November with funds the county received through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“If you’re asking me, do the people in the health department deserve more than what they got paid, well again, there were I think maybe five or six that feel that way, but we have over 100 or 200 employees,” Cortez said. “They didn’t come and say those things so maybe we have a minority that believe that they should’ve gotten more.”
In a statement, Cantu also pointed to the premim pay the employees would be receiving next month.
“Unfortunately, we can’t pay retro pay,” Cantu wrote. “I’m happy to say we are rewarding all of our employees with premium pay in November because they are all deemed essential. That’s what the ARPA rules allow and that’s what we have already approved.”
“Employees that make less than $40,000 will earn a one-time payment of $3,500,” he added. “Last year, the CARES money allowed us to pay out some comp time to employees of the health department, and we did. We appreciate the hard work of all our county and drainage district employees.”
When reached for comment, Precinct 3 Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal also pointed to the premium pay and said that some of their employees already received extra compensation for their work during the pandemic.
Precinct 1 Commissioner David L. Fuentes and Precinct 4 Commissioner Ellie Torres did not respond to requests for comment.
Martinez said they do want hazard pay for all county employees that worked during the pandemic but said employees in the health department took on additional risk.
“We’re just saying that the health department deserves additional pay because of the additional risk that they all went through by working the essential COVID-19 duties, because they were specifically working COVID-19 tasks and duties, either with the community or with direct patient care,” she said.
“We did the best that we could with what we had and I can proudly say that we served our community to the best of our capacity, and I think we did an excellent job,” Badillo said.
As a public servant, Badillo said she signed on to protect the community.
“I know that in any disaster, I have to leave my family behind to go serve my community and protect my community, and that is not something that I take lightly,” she said. “So when my superiors in the county, the people that we vote for and we have as our leaders do not keep their part of their bargain, I guess you could say, it makes you feel sad. It makes you feel that no one appreciates you and that no one is seeing what you’re doing.”