Hazard Pay Decisions Challenge City Leaders

Cities have employees in many high-risk positions. Police, firefighters, paramedics, and EMT’s are typical examples. Private and public employers alike are considering additional compensation, or “hazard pay,” for employees working on the frontlines in midst of the COVID-19 crisis. For those cities that implement such a policy, there exists a labyrinth of rules and regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that make this issue very complex.

What is the risk of COVID-19 exposure to city employees? The OSHA Hazard Recognition provides guidance to employers on which types of jobs are at greater risk for COVID-19 exposure. Some workers have similar exposure risks as the general public, while others have a higher risk. Those occupations with potentially greater exposure risk levels may include several different health care positions, emergency medical services, correctional facility operations, solid waste and wastewater management, and janitorial services.

What is hazard pay? According to the U.S. DOL, hazard pay means “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship. Work duty that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress which is not adequately alleviated by protective devices is deemed to impose a physical hardship.” The current coronavirus pandemic coupled with the lack of available personal protection equipment (PPE) is leading many cities to consider extra pay for certain employees that are deemed to be performing hazardous duty.

A number of cities already have adopted measures to augment the salary of certain city workers. Guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests that if the city has established hazardous duty pay in their pre-disaster labor policies, then the city could be eligible for disaster public assistance (PA) funding.  However, if the city establishes a new hazard pay policy in response to COVID-19, then they would not be eligible for FEMA public assistance funding.

As outlined to the National League of Cities in greater detail: 

Only overtime is eligible for budgeted employees performing eligible emergency work. Extraordinary costs like hazardous duty pay are considered premium pay. FEMA determines the eligibility of overtime, premium pay, and compensatory time costs based on the Applicant’s pre-disaster written labor policy, provided the policy:

  • Does not include a contingency clause that payment is subject to Federal funding;
  • Is applied uniformly regardless of a Presidential declaration; and
  • Has set non-discretionary criteria for when the Applicant activates various pay types.

If these requirements are not met, FEMA limits PA funding to the Applicant’s non-discretionary, uniformly applied pay rates.  See PAPPG V3.1, Chapter 2:V.A. Applicant (Force Account) Labor.

Case Examples from Cities  

Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an Administrative Order directing the institution of a hazard pay policy for front-line city employees. Eligible employees will be compensated an additional $500 per month.

The hazard pay policy applies to nearly 5,400 front-line staff positions, including: sworn public safety positions and civilians performing critical watershed, aviation, solid waste, transportation, inspection, parks and recreation and other frontline functions. This policy was effective as of March 30, 2020 and is scheduled to sunset on June 20, 2020.

In Birmingham, the city council approved a mayoral request on April 6 to implement a one-month $500,000 hazard pay program. Employees will receive a 5 percent increase to their base salary for hours worked.

There are 1,976 city employees eligible for hazard pay, including:

  • Finance – 29
  • Fire – 606
  • Mayor’s Office – 10 (City Hall security)
  • Municipal Court – 90
  • Planning Engineering and Permits – 100
  • Police & Corrections – 922
  • Public Works – 219

The City of Augusta Commission implemented an Extreme Condition Hazard Pay Policy for the city’s frontline staff members on April 6. Eligible employees, as defined in the policy, will receive compensation of an additional $5.00 per hour.

The Extreme Condition Hazard Pay Policy applies to about (1,400) essential critical infrastructure employees across various departments to include the fire department, law enforcement, emergency medical assistance, 911, sanitation, and additional primary frontline operations. Hazard Pay remains in place until June 6, 2020, unless otherwise amended by the Augusta Commission.

The city council in Savannah authorized a hazard pay bonus beginning on April 13.  The pay is calculated on hourly wages. This option will cost the city’s general fund $1.1 million. The administrative order to implement a hazard pay policy runs through at least May 29. This will provide an additional $100 per week for city employees. All but 335 of the 2,400 city employees are eligible. Elected officials, the city manager and the city attorney will not receive additional pay.

In Clarksdale, Miss., the city leadership unanimously approved 30-days of temporary hazard pay for all 147 city employees which includes police, firefighters, public works staffs and other workers. This equates to roughly a 5 percent raise for two pay periods.

Clarksdale is located in middle Coahoma County. According to the state health department, there are 35 positive cases of COVID-19 in the county. Coahoma County and neighboring Bolivar and Tunica counties have been labeled coronavirus “hot spots.”

Hazard Pay Vs Budget Realities 

According to the recent survey conducted by the National League of Cities and United States Conference of Mayors, 88 percent of local leaders anticipate the pandemic will lead to increased expenses and painful reductions in revenue this year. With hazard pay, city leaders are confronting two competing goods — compensate frontline city staff who are putting their own lives at risk during the coronavirus pandemic and manage a city budget that is losing revenues by the hour. In the very long-run, cities may achieve some balance by making use of built up reserves, rainy day funds, and Federal relief dollars. But that long-term perspective does little good for TODAY when lives are on the line and mainline city operations need to be maintained.

In Detroit, the mayor spoke directly to the challenges of local leadership confronting exactly these competing imperatives. In a recent set of decisions, first responders and employees who interact with the public will see a hazard pay boost of about $800 per month which started on Monday, April 10. Mayor Mike Duggan authorized pay increases for over 1,000 police, fire, EMS, general services, water and sewerage, transportation, and building, safety engineering and environmental (BSEED) and similar public-facing positions. The increases will remain in place until Governor Whitmer’s shelter-in-place order is “significantly” eased.

The mayor also rolled out $348 million in budget cuts to fill a budget deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020 due to service increases and revenue decreases connected to the coronavirus.

Similar debates are likely to play out in cities large and small as the pandemic continues and as city and town officials seek to protect both their community-at-large and the dedicated men and woman who provide public services.

About the Author:

Erin_Rian_readyErin Rian is Director of Member Services at NLC Mutual Insurance Company.



Jim Brooks smallJim Brooks is the director for housing & community development at the National League of Cities. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.



Yucel Ors smallYucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the Legislative Director for Public Safety and Crime Prevention at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.