JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Many city employees, including some of the highest-paid staff at Jacksonville’s mayor’s office may be earning thousands in extra pay for working during the coronavirus pandemic.
The I-TEAM began pressing for answers after receiving an email saying the Jacksonville mayor’s office is accruing nearly $234,000 in emergency pay for its employees in addition to their regular salaries for working on the city’s COVID-19 response.
We saw firsthand how some city employees worked extra hours, even seven days a week during the crisis that is still not over. Essential services had to continue, testing sites were set up, daily briefings were held and people risked their health and safety to protect the city and its citizens.
But the government pandemic response across Jacksonville -- the 12th largest city government in the nation -- also led to some unprecedented emergency bills. A city spokesperson told the I-TEAM that tab stands at about $50 million so far.
Roughly $40 million of that went to police and fire-rescue and other emergency services. Another $10 million is for other city employees deemed essential. That includes the mayor’s office staff.
Our investigation prompted at least one City Council member to say the city’s current hazard pay policy for some employees needs a closer look.
“I’m not tone-deaf to the fact they’re getting more money when some people just wish they were getting a paycheck,” Councilman Matt Carlucci said.
Other city offices, including the property appraiser’s office and the council auditors’ office, are among those not taking the extra pay -- offering comp time only for employees’ extra work.
So far, the I-TEAM found the mayor’s office staff still can either take extra pay or comp time. The tab for that office so far is nearly $234,000, with the most money going to the most highly paid city employee: Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes.
Hughes is currently entitled to an additional 359 hours of comp time or $54,000 in pay when he leaves the job.
Nikki Kimbleton, the city’s director of public affairs, accrued the second-highest amount of pay: 342 hours, equal to more than $25,700.
Stephanie Burch, the deputy chief administrative officer, logged 262 extra hours or more than $25,200 in pay.
The cash option can only be taken when an employee leaves, but it does not expire.
News4Jax asked Mayor Lenny Curry about the city policy on hazard pay. He said it is triggered during emergencies, but those usually only last a few days. Curry issued the current state of emergency on March 13 and it will run at least through the end of this month.
“I will say this: we recognized the financial stress early,” Curry said Thursday. "It was three weeks into this pandemic, we moved on appointed employees to limit the amount of comp time. But this is important for the public to know, that in an emergency, these folks are coming in and this is based on longstanding city policy and labor contracts while people are away from their families that are at home alone in a time of crisis.”
The mayor himself is not eligible for comp time or extra pay.
A city spokeswoman confirmed the mayor’s office staff received emergency compensation time since mid-March. She also said the city is currently negotiating with unions on a new structure for police and fire to limit the ballooning costs.
While the city has to reserve the $50 million of increased cost to the budget, the city expects 87.5% of that money will be reimbursed by FEMA within a year or so. The remaining 12.5% will come from the $160 million in funding the city received from the federal CARES Act
“There are two problems with that. We don’t know when those dollars are coming, and second thing is, those are still tax dollars,” Property Appraiser Jerry Holland said.
Holland oversees 105 appointed city employees deemed essential. His office’s employees were entitled to $350,000 in emergency compensation time, but they’ve decided to turn down the cash option and take the comp time off instead -- which he thinks is the responsible thing to do during a crisis.
“That’s $50 million in services that aren’t going to happen, and I don’t think that’s fair to the average taxpayer who may have lost their job or been furloughed,” Holland said. “I don’t think we should be having a personal gain from it.”
The council auditor’s office also is deciding to award comp time off and turn down the cash option.
Councilman Carlucci said this emergency is like no other, but it should prompt a review of how employees are compensated during such times.
“These are no ordinary times. We’ve never hit an issue like this before,” Carlucci said. “Some of these employees were working at Lot J, so I’m not going to play any kind of politics with it.”
But Carlucci understands how extra pay for those who have jobs makes others feel.
“I get it. A lot of people wish they just had a job,” he said. “I can’t blame the mayor’s office for making this available because I think, No. 1, they have to and No. 2, it’s up to each individual department if they do or they don’t.”
For comparison, News4Jax reached out to other large Florida cities to see how they have handled employee compensation during the emergency. The mayor’s office in Tampa said its employees did not receive hazard pay like Jacksonville’s mayor’s office did.
The city of Orlando told the I-TEAM that no city employees met their city’s hazard pay criteria -- no police, fire, trash services or the mayor’s office -- because they were “able to perform their duties as normal” during the pandemic. So, the city of Orlando’s final pay is $0 for pandemic response and city employees versus $50 million in Jacksonville.
We’re still waiting to hear back from Miami.