All’s fair in love and war, but money, it seems, demands a special kind of justice. The Hancock County Commissioners have kicked over a hornets’ nest with their proposal to use some of the $10.6 million the county was awarded under the federal American Rescue Plan to provide hazard pay to first responders and other employees who worked through the pandemic. Some local municipal officials, including Ellsworth’s city manager and Bucksport’s town manager, have objected on the grounds of fairness: The municipalities will not receive enough money to thus compensate their own dedicated frontline workers.
“Enough,” of course, is subjective. Ellsworth and Bucksport are to receive approximately $800,000 and $490,000, respectively, in two installments. That would cover additional pay, it just would take a bigger slice of the pie.
It was nearly 18 months ago that Maine declared a state of emergency (since lifted) because of COVID-19. Many people worked through the pandemic. In the private sector, higher wages in some industries have been driven by market pressures influenced by the crisis. As in, we have to pay more so people show up. Or, here is a token of our gratitude – so that you continue to show up. It’s less a reward, more a necessity and typically paid in real time.
Ultimately, it is up to employers to determine what they can and are willing to pay. Hancock County doesn’t owe municipalities money so that they can match the hazard pay proposed for county employees. County officials do have to answer to constituents as to whether hazard pay is the right use of the funds. And let’s drop the hazard pay terminology altogether and present the proposal for what it is – an employer wanting to offer a bonus after an incredibly hard year and a half.
In golf, bunkers are hazards. There, a golfer may derail his game trying to hit a good shot from the sand. Trying to apply fairness to pay is a sure way to get stuck in the sand. Compensation does not necessarily align with a job’s societal value. Otherwise, teachers and sanitation workers would be living like kings. One town may afford to pay firefighters a comfortable salary while the next gets by with a shrinking roster of volunteers. It’s not fair – it just is.
Similarly, if the county funds a broadband project or other initiative in one corner of the county, there may not be funds for other projects. Fair? Maybe not, but a good thing nonetheless.
We’re less worried about fairness and more so about the bigger question: What is the highest and best use of these funds? Ten million dollars is a lot of money. It should be leveraged for maximum effect not endlessly quibbled over or divvied up into smaller and smaller sums until it lacks the force to turn the dial on anything at all.