‘A monetary thank-you’: Bill proposing $1,500 for all employees tabled
If passed, a bill (No. 76-22) sponsored by Delegate Mark Freeland would compensate every Navajo Nation government employee with a $1,500 “appreciation reward” for working through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the bill will need to overcome a few hurdles before that happens.
“We have a lot of employees who were deemed essential during the pandemic and rendered services to our Navajo people directly,” Freeland told the Naabik’itayi’ Committee last Thursday.
“They risked their own health, their own lives,” he said. “We are so thankful for their services.”
An amount of $9.9 million is required for the $1,500 payments to 3,807 regular status employees, 90 certified chapter employees, 83 political at-will employees, 14 judges, 573 temporary workers, and 220 PEP workers. These dollars would come from the Unreserved, Undesignated Fund Balance.
Freeland said many chapter employees stepped up to help people in their regions.
“Whether it was food, wood, water distribution – they did a lot and they all went through a lot,” he said.
He also thanked all of the frontline workers, including law enforcement, health-care and emergency workers.
“We owe a lot of gratitude and appreciation to our staff of the executive, legislative and judicial branches,” he said.
Freeland said many of the Nation’s essential workers who put themselves in harm’s way to save lives during the pandemic are now fatigued and deserving of a morale boost in the form of the payment.
“Morale is a huge concern,” he said.
He said many employees also caught COVID-19 themselves and were impacted by the loss of colleagues and relatives.
“This is a mechanism to say thank you to our staff,” said Freeland. “It’s a monetary thank you, yes. Our staff went through a lot and people are still trying to recover financially.”
‘One size fits all’
However, several delegates in the Naabik’iatyi Committee said a complete report of which Navajo Nation employees were already paid “thousands of dollars” of COVID-19 pandemic special duty and hazard pay needed to be shared before the Freeland bill moves on.
Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton made the case that before the bill is approved, they needed to know exactly which employees already received special duty or hazard pay so that they can be excluded from receiving the additional $1,500 payment.
“What I’m really worried about is giving more money to people who don’t deserve it,” she said. “We all need to know how much money was given out for special duty pay and hazard pay. We all need to know which division directors paid themselves before they paid their employees.”
Charles-Newton said she recalled hearing rumors that there were some political appointees who were getting around $10,000 for special duty and hazard pay.
“I also recall delegates asking if we could get a list of every political appointee who received special and hazard and we were told that was confidential,” she said.
Charles-Newton said that delegates have argued that because federal CARES Act funding was used for the payments, the Navajo people should be made aware of which employees received it.
“I think that our people deserve to know those answers and to know that we as delegates are being fiscally responsible by getting this information, by sharing it with the people and by being transparent,” she said.
“Let them see where that money went and show them how their money was spent,” she said.
She said she was concerned that while some high-level employees received a large amount special duty and hazard pay, the “boots on the ground,” including food distribution workers, DALTEC employees, health-care workers and social service employees who were on the front lines did not get comparable payments.
Rewarding those who ‘got a big chunk’
“They got this funding when their employees didn’t,” said Charles-Newton. “I feel like we’re rewarding those who already got a big chunk of change from the CARES Act when we should be rewarding those boots on the ground who got that measly lump sum.”
Several other delegates chimed in and agreed with Charles-Newton.
Delegate Jimmy Yellowhair said he was aware that there were lower frontline level employees who were afraid to push for special duty and hazard pay because they were afraid to get fired by their bosses – who had received it.
“I understand they received a lot more money than these lower positions,” he said.
Delegate Edison Wauneka said he was also aware of many programs on the front lines that never got special duty or hazard pay.
“If there’s anything that’s approved, I think it should be the chapter staff and programs that were on the front lines and it was mandated that they had to be there,” said Wauneka.
Charles-Newton said she specifically wanted to know how much pay political appointees and judges included in Freeland’s “appreciation award” budget received.
“How many of them were receiving thousands of dollars?” she asked. “How many of those employees were actually out on the front line or stayed home?”
Freeland said while the legislation currently offers a “one size fits all” approach to paying an across the board $1,500 incentive, his initial intention was to reward lower wage and frontline workers.
“I’m really doing this for the lower tier staff, “boots on the ground,” chapter staff who receive lower tier salaries,” said Freeland. “That was the intent, to help them. We had a lot of staff out there risking their lives.”
However, Freeland said that he was advised by the Department of Personnel Management that it would have been “too hard” to separate employees by grade levels and salaries and pull out those directors who already received thousands of dollars in special duty and hazard pay to make them ineligible for the $1,500.
“It would have been really hard to extract that data,” he said. “We just don’t have the capacity.”
‘Shooting at the hip’
Charles-Newton said she felt the legislation was being rushed unnecessarily.
“Right now, we’re shooting at the hip and saying everybody’s going to get $1,500 and we shouldn’t be doing that,” she told Freeland. “If your intent was to focus on the boots on the ground, it needs to be amended to exclude political appointees and judges and anybody who received $2,000 or more.”
Delegate Daniel Tso said “pain and agony” have been imposed on many employees during the pandemic, including those who were on the front lines handing out PPE, food and other items, who did not receive hazard or special duty pay.
“We at the HEHSC committee expressed concerns about the bill, but since we weren’t the final authority, it moved forward,” said Tso. “I think it needs more work.”
In response, Freeland said that if the bill was tabled and would be further delayed that would impact morale of the employees who are hoping for the lump-sum payment.
“The delicacy of the morale is something we need to take into consideration,” he said.
However, Delegate Elmer Begay told Freeland Navajo Nation employees are lucky to have jobs with benefits in the first place and everyone should be thinking about all of the people who have suffered during the pandemic.
“A lot of knowledge holders passed on or are still having (COVID-19) symptoms,” he said. “How do we help them? There’s no money in that. There’s no benefits in it.”
He said people have also been promised home repairs, electricity, water.
“What about them?” Begay asked. “Talk about morale, think about the people who are neglected, who haven’t been served yet? Think about the people who are really in need today.”
He suggested Freeland’s bill was an attempt at boosting his re-election campaign.
“Is this because of the election that’s coming, to be popular?” asked Begay.
Freeland defended himself saying the idea for the bill came from employees and was dropped long before the election campaign started.
“To call it a campaign mechanism is not correct,” said Freeland. “That’s not why I dropped this legislation.”
He said he saw with his own eyes the essential staff that were working in high-risk settings prior to the COVID-19 vaccination.
“The intent was to give our employees a reward incentive,” he said. “All we care about is taking care of their mental health and well-being.”
Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty also pointed out issues with the bill relating to personnel policy, which currently does not include a provision for employee appreciation rewards.
“What this legislation is asking for at this time does not exist,” said Crotty. “If you read the verbiage in the legislation, there’s not a mechanism to do that.”
She said the Budget & Finance Committee had also expressed concerns and had requested updated budget forms.
“We would need to amend the legislation to conform with Navajo Nation policies and procedures,” she said.
Charles-Newton said while she appreciated Freeland’s intention to get just compensation to those who were “not compensated correctly,” the legislation was incomplete in its current form.
Freeland concluded by saying, “If amendments need to be, let’s fix it and get it right and move it forward.”
The bill was tabled (12-4) by the Naabik’iyati’ Committee for further review.