County Executive Marc Elrich responded yesterday to a report by the Office of Inspector General that inspectors with the Department of Permitting Services had received COVID hazard pay to which they were not entitled.
In addition, the IG found that DPS management did not follow county policy on the assignment of COVID differential pay, the report said.
Following the governor’s emergency pandemic order in the spring, the county shut down offices and ordered that all work that could be done by telework must be conducted that way.
“All DPS employees, except for inspectors, were instructed to work remotely, either full-time or a majority of the time,” the IG report found. “The county determined that inspections were an essential service for building and construction, and DPS inspectors continued to perform many onsite inspections of buildings, land, and rights-of-way.”
The county also agreed with three unions, representing firefighters, police and the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1994 (MCGEO), which represents DPS employees, on differential pay, or hazard pay, for employees required to work onsite.
The agreement called for an additional $10 per hour for “front-facing” work with the public, and an extra $3 an hour for office work that can’t be done by teleworking, but doesn’t involve physical interaction with the public.
The IG’s office found that MCGEO employees collected about $21.9 million in hazard pay through Sept. 26, while fire department employees collected about $14.9 million and police about $9.8 million.
“In analyzing the timekeeping data for the three pay periods covering March 29 through May 9, we found that approximately half of inspectors consistently claimed 80 hours of front facing COVID differential pay,” the IG said. “However, not all inspection-related work meets the criteria for front facing differential pay.”
Such work included “preliminary research of plans and approvals, had discussions over the phone and over email with applicants and others, wrote notes about their inspections, and conducted virtual inspections using cell phones.”
The IG said they were not able to calculate the amount of overpayments due to the lack of accurate information from DPS.
However, the office noted that once inquiries into the practice began, the DPS changed its policies and “this change resulted in a 27% decrease (1,456 hours) in front facing differential hours claimed, representing a per pay period savings of $14,560 at $10/hour. Additionally, the number of DPS staff charging 80 hours of front facing time per pay period declined 90%.”
In his statement, Elrich said the overpayments, which were the result of policies of the former acting DPS director, appeared to total about $100,000.
“I want to be clear – as soon as the current DPS director learned of this practice, she stopped it. I have directed my staff to thoroughly assess what happened in DPS and determine if there are similar occurrences elsewhere in county government,” Elrich said.
“[W]hile the DPS acting director, who has since retired, used poor judgment, he did not benefit from this decision in any way,” Elrich added. “We don’t have any reason to suspect fraud, but if any fraud is identified, we will address it immediately.”
Elrich also noted that the hazard pay is eligible for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the county would pursue that reimbursement, though the IG’s office recommended not applying “until all such payments have been verified for compliance against county policy.”
In response to the IG’s report, the County Council issued a statement that said, in part, “The Council is outraged by the differential pay issues identified in the Department of Permitting Services by the Office of the Inspector General. We are calling for an independent investigation across all Montgomery County Government departments and immediate action by County Executive Elrich to stop improper differential pay. Every dollar that was improperly paid, needs to be recovered immediately, and those who committed these egregious acts must be held accountable.”
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