Oct 6, 2022 - COVID

Millions in pandemic relief awarded to government workers as bonuses

Illustration of a hundred dollar bill as a surgical mask.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Government employees across Colorado took home millions in bonus pay from federal pandemic relief dollars with some pocketing hefty sums.

State of play: More than $20 million from Colorado's portion of the American Rescue Plan Act money went to frontline government workers during the pandemic — but thousands more went to employees who worked from home, skipped vaccinations or didn't qualify as essential, according to a new Axios Denver investigation.

  • Many localities didn't disclose who received the bonuses or how much, according to data obtained in collaboration with the Marshall Project from the U.S. Treasury this year.

Details: The salary bonus ranges were seemingly haphazard in size and scope, our analysis found.

  • Cherry Hills Village awarded about 50 staff members a $4,000 bonus in March as "a way to thank employees for their hard work" in the pandemic, the city reported. That is the only ARPA money it has spent so far.
  • Greeley provided COVID-19 vaccine incentives, including $250 to employees who opted out because of a medical or religious exemption.
  • Northglenn issued hazard pay to essential employees, including $1,000 to those who worked partly from home.
  • Rio Grande County — where the median household income is $44,000 — gave its roughly 150 government employees $2,500 bonuses. Denver — where household income is $73,000 — gave its much larger workforce a range between $250 and $2,500.

Why it matters: The new findings amplify the questions about how Colorado counties and cities are spending $1.7 billion from the much-hailed federal pandemic relief package, which was primarily designed to address public health and negative economic impacts.

What they're saying: John Swartout, the executive director of the Colorado Counties association, said premium pay to employees who worked during the pandemic needed to be a top priority.

  • "When everyone else was home, they were out providing services to the public," he told Axios Denver.

The big picture: The ARPA money came with few limitations and little oversight on how it was spent. All local governments in the state received at least $10 million.

  • One of the allowable areas included spending to "restore public service capacity." That allowed local governments to rehire laid off workers, eliminate furlough pay loss and provide vaccine incentives, hazard pay and retention pay in a tough job market.

Yes, but: Unlike other allowable uses, the federal government did outline specific guidance on who is eligible and caps on the amount of bonuses. For instance, it prohibits extra pay for remote workers.

  • Colorado state and local governments have set aside at least $23 million so far from ARPA to cover hazard pay and other salaries, according to treasury records.
  • But limited disclosure makes it difficult to know whether governments are following the rules.

Zoom in: Colorado Springs' chief financial officer Charae McDaniel told us their bonuses went to first responders — "the sworn men and women were interacting with the public throughout the stay at home orders." The average check was $1,934.

  • Some localities, including Arvada and Northglenn, ranked employees' risk of COVID-19 exposure and granted hazard pay on a sliding scale.
  • Larimer County earmarked $1.2 million to compensate its civilian staff, such as maintenance workers at the county jail, who worked alongside first responders, budget director Josh Fudge said. The most paid to an employee was $6,489, though the average was $5,000, records show.
  • In Rio Grande County, finance officer Greg Barre said he was unsure how the $2,500 bonus was decided.

The bottomline: Millions in ARPA dollars remain unspent in Colorado, but local authorities hold the purse strings. It all must be earmarked for specific uses by 2024.

This is the latest in an Axios Denver series on ARPA spending in Colorado. Don't miss part 1, part 2 and part 3


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