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More than half of Philly government workers are on duty during the coronavirus crisis. They’re getting paid extra.

Mayor Jim Kenney's administration hopes to recoup much of the cost of paying essential personnel 50% extra from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program following the crisis.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's order to limit the city workforce to employees in essential services took effect Wednesday.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's order to limit the city workforce to employees in essential services took effect Wednesday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia city employees required to work during the coronavirus crisis will earn 50% more than their base pay under an agreement Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration negotiated this week with the major municipal unions.

“At a critical time when a large portion of the city workforce is already unavailable due to child care or other challenges, essential employees are expected to work longer hours, take on additional responsibilities, and in this particular case are putting their own health at risk,” Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox said in a statement Thursday.

One factor in the decision was ensuring that city employees show up to work instead of taking leave time because they fear being infected on the job or need to care for children at home, said Cathy Scott, who leads the city’s union for white-collar workers.

“They wanted to incentivize people to come to work, given how dire the circumstances are," said Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47. “Paying them additional compensation is one way to incentivize people. A lot of our members have built up a lot of [leave] time.”

With the possibility that the coronavirus crisis could last months, and with tax revenues poised to nosedive with the rest of the economy, paying workers 50% extra could further drain city coffers. The Kenney administration, however, hopes to recoup much of the money spent on essential personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program, which can repay state and local governments for up to 75% of emergency-related spending following a federally designated disaster like the coronavirus pandemic.

When the city on Wednesday scaled back to offering only essential services, at least 15,000 of Philadelphia’s 27,000 municipal employees were designated as essential, including the entire police, fire, prisons, and public health departments, Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn said.

Some workers in departments with blanket orders to keep all employees on the job have questioned whether they are essential employees, Scott said.

“There are full units, for example, that are being required to work when probably there are one or two people that should be required to work,” she said.

A health department employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity since employees are not allowed to speak directly with reporters, said that she doesn’t believe her position is needed during this time of crisis and that having so many employees who aren’t needed at this time could do more harm than good.

“It was a really unproductive decision to have this many people come into work, being in close quarters in their office, taking public transit,” said the employee, who works in a research role unrelated to the coronavirus. “You’re really just creating an environment that we’re trying to prevent having at some point.”

Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the number will fluctuate as the city’s needs change and as departmental managers fine-tune who in their workforce is needed.

“We’ve deemed some as nonessential staff that may be essential in two weeks or four weeks as these challenges continue," Abernathy said Wednesday. "And there are going to be some folks who are going to be identified as essential today that may not be essential in two weeks. The business and rhythm of the city is something that we’re going to have to maintain. We’re going to have to make sure that people are getting paid, that vendors are paid, that our core services are maintained.”

Cox said that some employees, such as administrative assistants, may not have expected to be required to work after being designated as nonessential in previous city emergencies. The coronavirus, however, presents different challenges.

“The response to COVID-19 is much different than a snow emergency or other scenarios that employees are used to,” she said. “This is long-lasting and therefore, some staff — like clerks and administrative staff — that wouldn’t be essential for a short-term event are very much essential given the expected duration of these challenges.”

Not all essential employees are being required to report to their workplaces. The city is encouraging departmental managers to let employees work from home if possible, Cox said, and expects the number of essential city workers to be given permission to do so to rise.

“Departments have been asked to allow any essential employees who can work from home to do so,” Cox said. “The reality is that not all work can be done virtually, either due to job responsibilities or technology limitations. Where this cannot be accommodated, we are recommending supervisors stagger shifts and allow flexible schedules to reduce the number of employees in any one work location.”

The city has prioritized work-from-home requests from employees who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus, namely older workers and those with underlying medical conditions, Scott said.