/ Articles / Minocqua non-essential employees idled but paid
Evers proposes bill preventing schools from laying off or cutting pay of staff
More evidence surfaced this week that many public-sector employees are not suffering the same hardships as private-sector employees when it comes to layoffs and pay during the coronavirus crisis.
Locally, for example, the town of Minocqua is continuing to pay nonessential workers who are idled by the pandemic. On the state level, Gov. Tony Evers has proposed legislation that would prevent school districts — public, independent charter, and voucher — from cutting pay or laying off workers during the emergency, though schools are closed and many hourly employees are not working.
As of March 25, and effective through the end of the April 17 pay period, the town of Minocqua has issued employee protocols that include paying all personnel whether they work or not.
According to a protocol issued March 24, all essential employees, including paid and volunteer first responders, which includes law enforcement, emergency dispatchers, firefighters and EMS, and building inspectors will work as scheduled. Also working as scheduled are employees needed to ensure the continuing operation of the town government and to provide and support the health, safety, and welfare of the public, according to the protocol signed by town chairman Mark Hartzheim.
“These may be designated as necessary by the town chair, town clerk, and department heads,” the protocol stated. “Examples: Employees performing cleaning, sanitizing, and garbage removal will be scheduled as needed.”
For nonessential employees whose work was not listed or designated in any of those categories, the town directed those employees to stay at home and adhere to the statewide Safer at Home directive issued by the Evers administration, except that those employees could be called in for essential work as it arises, such as snow plowing, sanding, trees on roadways, flood control, and filling potholes that constitute a mobility and safety issue, among others.
In any event, everyone’s pay is safeguarded, the directive stated.
“All employees, whether essential or nonessential, will receive their regular pay during the time period between March 25 and April 17, provided they remain an employee of the town during this time,” the protocol states.
The situation is different in Woodruff, where town chairman Mike Timmons says his workforce is staying on the job, albeit in some creative ways.
“Our employees are practicing social distancing and they are keeping their distance, but they are working,” Timmons said this week. “Our road crew has been helping to build sneeze guards and hand sanitizer holders for the April 7 election, for example. Our police secretary is helping the town clerk out.”
Those kinds of activities followed a March 19 town board vote to allow town employees to work outside the bounds of the employee handbook, in effect enabling department heads to use their employees to “take care of anything that comes up” during the pandemic.
Timmons stressed that employees would be following all federal and state declarations regarding activities during the emergency.
Not that life is normal, Timmons said.
“Our walk-in offices are shut down to the public,” he said. “Our town office is open from 10 a.m. to noon, but only for purposes of voting.”
The public is also advised to conduct town business by email or phone. Town clerk Julie Huotari and Timmons are both in the office, but again those offices are closed and they are there for the most part to continue to conduct town business by email or phone.
On its website, the town is encouraging voters to request an absentee ballot for the April 7 and May 12 elections in an effort to reduce crowd exposure at the polling place.
“The easiest way to do that is to visit myvote.wi.gov,” the website states. “It’s a very simple process and only takes a minute. Once you hit submit, the request automatically gets sent to the clerk’s office from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. You may also request an absentee ballot in writing to the clerk’s office.”
When it comes to pay and work, Oneida County chairman Dave Hintz told The Times last week that Oneida County was also shifting workers to other more essential duties when they could be, while others were being encouraged to work from home, if that was possible.
Hintz did not say any employees had been laid off or furloughed, but he did say that was a future possibility. He also said the county was only processing employment applications for essential personnel during the emergency.
Oneida County has seven positions posted, of which at least four could be considered essential personnel.
Many school districts are also paying non-contractual employees during the emergency, even without Evers’s proposed legislation. Most teachers and administration, for example, are covered by contracts that keep their pay coming during the closures. Many hourly staff are not covered by such contracts, but a growing number of school boards have voted to continue their pay at least temporarily.
For example, LUHS recently voted to pay hourly employees through April 15, and MHLT also voted to pay hourly employees retroactively from March 16 through April 19, or until the emergency is lifted if sooner.
For educators and school district staff, state help may be on the way. A bill being drafted —though not yet introduced as of Monday morning — would require a school board, independent charter school, and private school participating in a parental choice program or the Special Needs Scholarship program to continue to pay employees at the employees’ regular rate during any period of time during which schools are closed by order of DHS (public health emergency).
“Additionally, the bill prohibits a school board, independent charter school, and private school participating in a parental choice program or the Special Needs Scholarship program from laying off employees during a public health emergency,” the bill states. “The bill applies to the public health emergency that began on March 18, 2020.”
It should be noted teachers in many if not most schools remain on the job, posting online lessons, and assessing and evaluating student progress.
Meanwhile Wisconsin’s private sector continues to be decimated, with overall initial unemployment claims exploding in the week ending March 28 to 115,679 compared to just under 70,000 for the week ending March 21.
A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum also cautioned that areas heavily dependent on tourism could be severely impacted by the pandemic.
“Counties heavily dependent on tourism are among those facing the greatest challenges due to their concentration of jobs in accommodation, food services, entertainment, and recreation,” the report stated. “In six tourism-dependent counties, at least one out of every four jobs is in a heavily impacted sector. Three of those counties are among the state’s most popular tourist destinations: Adams (covering a portion of the Wisconsin Dells area), Door, and Walworth (Lake Geneva area), while the other three are northern counties that also rely on tourism (Vilas, Bayfield, and Sawyer).”
The Policy Forum cautioned that not all tourism-related jobs in those counties will be immediately affected because some represent seasonal opportunities that only exist in the summer.
“The longer the current economic situation lasts, however, the more it will reduce summer tourism, leading more jobs to be cut, reduced in hours, or not created,” the report stated.
The report observed the counties with the highest concentrations of jobs in hard-hit sectors tend to have relatively small populations and job totals. Still, that’s small comfort for the families in those areas that are severely impacted by the virus.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.