Nitro police officer S.R. Reekie takes a statement from a stolen vehicle victim on Monday afternoon in Nitro on Aug.31, 2020. F. Brian Ferguson photo

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On the Friday before Easter, Gov. Jim Justice pledged rewards for paramedics, police officers, and even grocery store workers — West Virginians providing critical services during the early stages of the pandemic.

At the April press briefing, Justice announced that $100,000 grants would be sent to each of West Virginia’s 55 counties for “hero pay,” also referred to as hazard pay, which is extra money for those working on the front lines.

“We’re going to give the counties an incredible amount of latitude to reward the people that are the true first responders, the people that are true soldiers right on the front lines,” Justice said.

By the end of the day, there would be 574 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and five deaths from it. A number of West Virginians worked from home, as dictated by Justice’s “stay-at-home” order. But not those Justice planned to reward.

“It doesn’t matter to me if they’re the people that are at the grocery stores, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re the public health workers or first responders and social service workers,” he said. “These dollars are for you to reward exactly what I’ve just said, and that is the people that are absolutely looking out for us in every way, and those people need rewarded.”

Justice, making it clear the federal block grants were for hero pay, provided no roadmap on how counties could spend the money for that purpose while also following state law and federal guidelines.

So far, it appears that very few of West Virginia’s 55 counties have used the money to reward crucial first responders and others who kept working to serve the public during the pandemic.

An investigation by Mountain State Spotlight has found that a lack of guidance from the state created confusion and apprehension, leaving some local officials uncertain what the $100,000 could actually be used for. They were put in a tough position, navigating requests from constituents wanting a piece of the funds. And some officials say they still aren’t sure of the rules.

“We got a letter with the money that didn’t say what he was saying on TV,” Boone County Commission President Eddie Hendricks said.  “It was very broad, and it didn’t give good direction on what it could be spent for. And we’re still not sure what it can be spent for.”

‘THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED’

Gov. Jim Justice speaks at an April 10 press conference. Photo courtesy Governor’s office

The governor’s office sent the counties checks on April 15.

Accompanying the check was a letter, and on the letter were guidelines and examples of what the block grants could be used for: overtime pay for first responders, extraordinary emergency operation center costs and costs of personal protective equipment. 

It mentioned hero pay nowhere.

“The way that it was described and the way it was then rolled out was two different things,” said Greg Puckett, a Mercer County commissioner. 

Many counties were unsure how to use the funds, made available under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Yet, word had spread about hero pay, and many constituents were asking for compensation.

Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said calling the money hero pay was the “worst thing that could’ve happened.”

Bloom said the commission received inquiries from a lot of different people and groups about the money. 

“It was intense for a while,” he said.

Jennifer Piercy, the executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia, tried to find out what counties should do. She traded calls and emails with the governor’s office in April. In one of those emails, dated April 22, she asked if the hero pay could instead be called the “Governor’s COVID-19 Block Grant.” 

Ann Urling, Justice’s deputy chief of staff, replied, “I don’t see a problem with this.”

“The hero pay caused so much controversy because it was called hero pay,” Piercy said later in an interview. “That’s when you had all these folks bombarding the county commission offices saying, ‘Hey, I work at the grocery story, so I’m entitled to this money.’”

The governor had strongly suggested that grocery store workers should be considered to receive the money. 

In short, the block grant was an extension of CARES Act money that counties would be able to apply for anyway. The counties have until the end of the year to use the money.

Piercy also asked via email about spending parameters the counties could give to towns and cities.

The governor’s office dodged such questions.

“The bottom line is the Governor has offered his support in the spirit of wanting to help with the extraordinary costs that each county and municipalities within each county are experiencing for those on the front line of the pandemic,” Urling wrote. “If additional direction is needed, I would suggest that they speak with their respective legal counsels.”

Piercy also sought help from State Auditor J.B. McCuskey’s office. Officials there provided counties with a FAQ sheet containing information about the block grant spending. 

One question from the FAQ sheet asked about restrictions.

“The Auditor’s office would caution the commissioners to remember some of the restrictions that we have previously discussed in our training sessions,” the agency wrote. “For instance: restrictions on the use of public funds for personal gain of yourself or others, taxable fringe benefits and awarding of bonuses to employees.”

When asked about incentive and bonus payment, the office responded that “no extra compensation can be awarded after compensation has been issued and payments cannot be made until the services have been rendered.” 

It urged county commissioners to consult their lawyers before making any “unusual types of appropriations.”

“Please understand this is not a legal opinion; rather, this is our interpretation of the facts as presented,” auditors wrote. 

In an email to Mountain State Spotlight, Piercy said the FAQ sheet alone “can show you how complicated it is for counties to figure out how monies can be spent.”

Another: “Can these grant monies be used to give to private business or private citizens within the county?” 

The auditor’s office replied that it was not aware of “anything that allows county funds to be expended for private enterprise.” It suggested that counties go to the state Ethics Commission for clarification. 

Piercy, pointing to the FAQ sheet, said the recommendation from the state auditor’s office advice was to not to use the grant money for “hero pay.” The only advice she got from the governor’s office was that they wouldn’t provide legal advice. 

“What came out of the governor’s mouth was ‘hero pay,’” Piercy said. “That’s not what that CARES Act money is for.”

In August, Anthony Woods, deputy state auditor, said a pay increase could “potentially be permitted.”

“It’s going to vary between the various local governments as they all have different government officials, different sizes, different structures,” he said. 

Woods said they needed to be sure they were following CARES Act and state guidelines.

“We don’t want to tell anyone that they can use it or they can’t use it for hero pay because it’s really going to depend on each situation,” Woods said.

Woods said the governor’s office should guide the counties.

 “We’ve relied a lot on the governor’s office to shed light on what these funds are to be used for, as it is their grant program and it is an initiative spearheaded by Gov. Justice,” Woods said.

The governor’s office did not respond to Mountain State Spotlight requests for comment for this story.

COUNTIES GOT MIXED MESSAGES

Kanawha County’s $100,000 block grant was used for hero pay — the only county Mountain State Spotlight confirmed to have used it for that purpose. The county sent the money to Charleston, which matched the amount, giving $200,000 to employees of its police, fire and refuse and recycling departments a $2 an hour pay raise for a month.

Not only did Kanawha County commissioners approve hero pay for county employees in early April, before Justice’s block grant announcement, but later in the month they sent an extra $135,000 of the county’s money to other Kanawha cities and towns for hero pay. The commission also gave $25,000 to the Metro 911 call center, and another $100,000 to the Kanawha County Ambulance Authority, which was matched by the organization. 

Despite the pandemic, Charleston City Manager Jonathan Storage said every employee showed up, took precautions and got the job done.

“We thought that hero pay, as the governor has called it, recognizes those additional risks that those three department employees had taken on that was, quite frankly, not what they signed up for,” he said. 

Jered Lanham, deputy director of the city’s Refuse and Recycling Department, said the hero pay raised morale.

“The hero pay was just a real nice gesture from the mayor and her staff, and the guys really appreciated it,” he said. 

Lloyd White, administrator of the Marion County Health Department, wanted his employees to receive the same consideration.

“If, in fact, it was available, we certainly wanted to do something to reward our employees,” he said. “ [Because of] the additional work, not to mention the additional stress and all the things our staff goes through, they certainly deserve some type of a hero pay.”

So on April 17, White emailed the State Auditor’s Office.

“How can I legally provide ‘Hero’ pay to front-line employees in a public health department? Can it be a ‘one time’ payment?” he wrote, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

An auditor’s office employee referred him to the governor’s office.

Urling responded that the letter attached to the block grant specifically outlined how the money should be spent.

“Please note that I am responding to your email and not providing legal advice either,” she wrote.

Days later, Urling emailed Piercy, the lobbyist for the county commissioners, that she had told White that the auditor’s office “did not permit bonuses.”

But White said he only got the one response from the governor’s office. After talking with officials in other counties, he decided that the grant money couldn’t be used for hero pay.

“The hero pay would have been a good reward for them working long hours, holidays, weekends,” White said later. Without the hero pay, the health department instead gave its employees a raise for the 2020-2021 fiscal year that started in July.

The Marion County Health Department wasn’t the only place to take money out of its budget to reward its workers. 

Allen Holder, director of the Lincoln County E-911 Communications Center and Office of Emergency Services, said 911 dispatchers received hero pay from March through mid-May. 

Holder said this was done without expectation of CARES Act reimbursement; he didn’t believe the 911 center would be eligible.

CABELL CASTS DOUBT THAT GRANTS CAN BE USED FOR HERO PAY

During an April media briefing, Justice was asked about a Cabell County Commission press release that said the money couldn’t be used for hero pay.

In his response, the governor did not address whether that was the case.

“We want to reward those who stepped up, those that are on the front-line battle,” he said. “We want to be able to do that, but we wanted to be able to do that in a format that we could basically hope that we could get reimbursement at some point in time from the federal government for rewarding our heroes.”

Justice said the counties were given discretion over the fund so they could help identify who would get the money.

At the same press conference, Brian Abraham, the governor’s general counsel, said the block grants were “a short-term bridge” until other CARES Act money was made available to counties. Without mentioning hero pay, Abraham said the money could be used to help with overtime “or whatever for their front-line workers,” and to stockpile personal protective equipment.

His comments seemed to backtrack from Justice’s earlier insistence that the money be used to reward front-line employees.

“We saw Cabell County’s press release, obviously that was one county out of the 55,” Abraham said. “We’d be happy to work with them at any time, but I think the governor hit it right on the head. He wanted the counties to be able to have the discretion to use this as they needed.”

It wasn’t just Cabell County that questioned the hero pay.

Piercy said constantly updated CARES Act guidelines — and differences between the letter and Justice’s announcement — left many counties feeling guarded about spending the money.  

Bloom said the Monongalia County Commission is worried if it spends the “hero pay” incorrectly, it will have to pay it back. The county hasn’t used the funds yet.

“We’re waiting for more clarification,” Bloom said, though he added that the auditor’s office had told him the funds can’t be used for hero pay.  “How can you not provide guidance if you’re giving us money and funds and you want us to do it correctly?”

Bloom said the governor’s office hasn’t listened to the counties’ concerns. 

“Basically, what has happened is that instead of contacting the local counties or having the Legislature clearly make the best decisions for West Virginians, one person is making a decision during a campaign race that it appears if you support certain interests, you get money,” Bloom said. 

Putnam County Manager Jeremy Young said commissioners there also have not spent the money. 

“Our county has decided to sit on that money until we know a little bit more about how to use it,” Young said. “The county is not sure which is the best way to spend the money, because we’re already getting reimbursed for a majority of expenditures through the CARES portal anyway.”

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he read the CARES Act guidelines and interpreted that it could be used for “anything COVID-19 related,” including hero pay.

“I’m not sure what their (the governor’s office’s) final opinion on that will be, but you don’t wait until when somebody else makes a decision sometimes,” Carper said. “We can’t wait for people to make decisions. We have to move forward.” 

Puckett said the Mercer County Commission has so far spent half of the grant money on creating a PPE stockpile. Puckett viewed the $100,000 from the grant as “a drop in the bucket” that would best help front-line workers.

Puckett said the governor is used to making decisions in the business world, where he could wave a hand and it would happen. 

“In government, it doesn’t work that way,” Puckett said. “I’m not blaming the governor for this. I think his intentions were pure. I think the outcome was poor, and not his fault. I just think that’s just the product of the system.”

‘IT’S VERY DISHEARTENING’

The Nitro Police Department on Monday Aug. 31, 2020. F. Brian Ferguson photo

In Nitro, which is split between Kanawha and Putnam counties, police officers did not get a tax holiday that their police chief, Bobby Eggleton, had petitioned for. Instead they got around $100 each from hero pay money given to the city by Kanawha County commissioners.

“Every little bit helps these people, and I was glad to see that our city gave some of it to our public works people,” he said.

Still, Eggleton said it was disheartening for his officers to compare what they got to what others receiving hero pay received. 

“I don’t think they got their fair share,” he said.

Eggleton said he believed when the money was dispensed, small towns and cities were forgotten.

Nitro Police Chief Bobby Eggleton in his office on Monday Aug. 31, 2020. F. Brian Ferguson photo

When first interviewed in late July, Eggleton was awaiting results from a COVID-19 test. He’d been potentially exposed to the virus from someone while on the job. He said the worst thing about the situation was even if the results came back negative, which they later did, he could get exposed again the day he returned to work.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that, at some point, one of my officers, if they don’t already have it, will catch it unless we get a vaccine or something like that,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Eggleton used to worry about his officers getting hurt on the job. Now, he’s also concerned they might contract COVID-19. Those officers also fear passing it on to their families. They face additional challenges, such as figuring out childcare for their kids after schools closed.

“But they have adapted, and I don’t hear a lot of complaints,” Eggleton said. “They just understand in the world of law enforcement, we have to be able to adapt and change to the environment.”

Eggleton said no one should have gotten hero pay. His officers were already getting paid to be put into hazardous positions. He didn’t believe hero pay could be fairly distributed.

Still, he said, “My professional opinion is if one’s going to get it, everybody needs to get it.”

PENNSYLVANIA, VERMONT REWARD HEROES

Other states have created programs to reward front-line workers. And they’re using CARES Act money to do it.  

The U.S. Treasury Department has released guidance that says the federal funds can be used for hazard pay, which it considers “additional pay performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship, in each case that is related to COVID-19.” 

In July, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced $50 million in grant funding through the CARES Act would go to help employers provide hazard pay to employees in life-sustaining jobs during the pandemic.

“In the fight against COVID-19, our front-line workers have put themselves at risk every day in order to continue to provide life-sustaining services to their fellow Pennsylvanians, and this funding will increase their pay in recognition of those sacrifices,” Wolf said in a press release

In early August, Vermont allocated $28 million through the CARES Act to public safety, public health, healthcare and human service agencies whose workers helped to respond to COVID-19. Some private businesses were able to request funding to provide $1,200 or $2,000 in hazard pay to their employees.

Jamie Beaton, president of the West Virginia Public Workers Union, has encouraged his members to contact state lawmakers and ask them to pass a bill that would do the same for public employees here.

Beaton said hazard pay wasn’t a priority of the governor’s office. 

“It’s our belief that if something like hazard pay were to occur, that it’s something that the legislature is going to have to address,” he said.

Months have passed since the union’s executive board sent a letter to the governor’s office calling for increased protection and support of essential public workers. The office responded in April with a letter that only said the correspondence had been delivered to the appropriate division in the governor’s office for review.

 That was the last the union heard from the office on the subject, Beaton said.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member and watchdog reporter. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Athenaeum,...