Above: Southborough employees have reported they believe they contracted Covid through their in-person work for the city. (cropped image from meeting video)

The board of directors voted against using any of the $3 million the city is entitled to in ARPA funds as hazard compensation for Southborough Town employees whose jobs put them at high risk at the onset of the pandemic .

The board had appointed an ARPA committee to make recommendations on how best to use federal funds. The Committee recommended that approximately 10% of the money be used for eligible staff who worked in person in spring 2020. Designated full-time employees will receive $5,000 and $1,000 part-time.

On Tuesday evening, the Council followed up on the 1 November discussion on the recommendation. Although the agenda only referred to a request from the Police and Fire Department, the Council was reminded that the Committee’s recommendation affected other Council employees, including members of Facilities and the DPW.

In the discussion two weeks ago, board members highlighted their concern that some employees would feel unfairly treated if excluded from a shortlist of employees on extra pay. After hearing from public safety officials presenting their case about the impact of Covid on them and their families, member Sam Stivers asked for more time to consider if there was a better way to address the issue.

In between meetings, it was a different member who came up with a workaround. But ultimately, it was not supported.

Before the vote, Stivers said he still couldn’t find a way to be fair to all city staff, so he didn’t back the expense. While Chair Kathy Cook and Member Andrew Dennington maintained their stance against the spending, Lisa Braccio told them she had changed her stance.

Braccio received many calls between meetings from people advocating for the pay and others pushing for more tax breaks. After further research on staff who worked in person in March-December 2020, he compiled a list of 53 full-time and 5 on-call employees. She and others noted that ARPA regulations prohibit spending the funds on school staff and teachers: a group that members had complained about the spending would unfairly exclude.

Braccio tried to get the Board to support a modified request that would have reduced special compensation for full-time staff to $2,000. This would still allow the Council to increase the amount earmarked for tax relief. He followed that if they disagreed, he would vote with them. He stressed that the decision should be unanimous among the four voting members.*

Stivers wondered if Braccio could be sure of his list. He acknowledged that no list could eliminate all possible complaints.

During public comments, ARPA Commission Chair Andrea Hamilton explained that the Committee had found a list of City employees (similar to Braccio’s but slightly larger) on which the recommendation was based. The $300,000 would cover them all. He reiterated that their recommendation was not unique to the police and fire departments.

Police union resident and deputy chairman Heath Widdis told the council that every day’s work in the early months of the pandemic was painful. He reminded them of TV images of bodies in New York under the covers as officials struggled to determine what to do with them. He asked the room of workers who presented in support of groceries to raise their hands if they had fears of being infected, had been infected, and believed the infection was due to occupational exposure. Several have.

Firefighters Lt. Neal Aspesi told the board it had followed up on the concerns mentioned at the previous meeting. He has contacted groups of workers that the council had indicated might be upset. He described conversations with other departments that supported the request. (Some believed they were also eligible and others knew they would not.)

Before allowing comments, board members assured eligible employees that they enjoyed their service. But following the comments, members voted unanimously against the recommendation without responding to any of the arguments raised. Afterward, Cook told those in attendance, “we did what we thought was the right thing to do for this particular object.”

Since May, the Council has approved many of the Committee’s recommendations, while others have been awaiting further details to be worked out. This was the Council’s first vote to reject one. (You can see my updated spreadsheet tracking the Board’s decisions on fund allocation here.) The motion did not designate an alternative use of the funds.

*Vice President Chelsea Malinowski withdrew from the discussion on the grounds that she was married to a firefighter (although she works for another city).

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