Debate rages over double pay for frontline employees
Officers of the Guam Police Department help the National Guard man the road blocks in this April 11, 2020 file photo.
The frontline employees' demand for double pay during the Covid-19 pandemic has now become a political battle fought from different directions, and Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has to confront the issue which is further complicated by a lawsuit filed by a police officer.
“Double pay isn’t applicable to this pandemic crisis," Leon Guerrero said, citing Attorney General Leevin Camacho's opinion issued last week. “As the result of that, if the double pay isn’t applicable to this pandemic crisis, then the resources would not also be applicable."
Speaker Tina Muña Barnes called for an emergency session for Thursday, May 21 at 2:30 p.m. to tackle bill regarding compensation of our frontline employees.
“I have no particular preference on which bill is entertained," Muna Barnes said. Hopefully tomorrow, when we have all 15 members at the table, we can come together with an even better bill. To our front liners, 8 members of this Legislature have heard your concerns, and we need to take action.”
On the heels of the AG's opinion, Sen. Telena Nelson has proposed two measures -- Bills 357-35 and 358-35-- seeking to authorize double pay for frontline and essential employees retroactive to the governor’s declaration of public health emergency through the declaration of Pandemic Condition of Readiness 2, or March 14 to May 8.
The governor said federal funds from CARES Act cannot be used for this purpose. "This piece of legislation is eligible of the definition of hazardous pay. I’m not so sure if the double pay itself without its current ability to be applicable to this pandemic crisis would fall under that eligibility,” the governor said.
What Leon Guerrero endorses instead is Speaker Tina Muna Barnes' Bill 359-35, which proposes extra leave credits for classified employees who worked during the emergency period of March 20 to May 10.
Under the bill titled "Heroes Annual Leave Act," eligible classified employees would be entitled to one hour of additional annual leave—for every hour worked—not to exceed 240 hours of annual leave, provided that the classified employee was required to physically report to work during the emergency period and did not receive any additional compensation or leave benefits.
“I don’t know if any of you knew, but we worked really hard over the weekend to see what we can think outside the box, see how we can get creative, see how we can help our frontliners,” Barnes said Monday.
Bill 359-35 was originally supported by the Guam Federation of Teachers, but the union later pulled out its support from Muna- Barnes bill in favor of Nelson's double-pay bill. In a press statement, GFT president Tim Fedenko said the union is inclined to support a "better bill."
The union's withdrawal of support from Bill 359-35 came as a surprise to the governor.
"My understanding is they all worked very closely and very hard over the weekend to come up with a plan and legislation that would best meet the needs of our essential employees," the governor said. "It was a total surprise for me as you heard Robert Koss give his support and his praise about this piece of legislation. Something must’ve happened, but I can’t talk about that because I don’t know.”
Koss said GFT was unaware of Nelson's Bill 357 when the union backed Bill 359-35.
“I don’t really know if it wasn’t disclosed but I do know that even at the time of the press conference yesterday, that the speaker herself really wasn’t aware of the bill," the governor said. "As she did say she wasn’t familiar with the logistic of the bill. But I do also know that at the press conference Robert Koss was aware at that time and he did say that it would have to be worked out between the legislators and the senators as to what is going to be resolved. He was confident it would be resolved and at that time he did not pull his support from Bill 359.”
Adding to this clash over double pay is a lawsuit filed Tuesday by attorney Thomas J. Fisher, on behalf of police officer Steve Topasna and 100 others.
The writ of mandamus filed in the Superior Court Tuesday seeks to compel the Department of Administration to implement double pay for employees who were required to work during the public emergency period.
"This should not be about politicians who hold leadership positions, it’s about following the rule of law. When the government acts unlawfully, it is courageous government of Guam employees like Officer Steve Topasna who must pay the price and not the politicians," Fisher said. According to the lawsuit, Topasna has been reporting for duty since March 16 "under emergent and unsafe working conditions and continues to do so today."
Commenting on the lawsuit, the governor said, “I'm confident that our position is correct, because as you read the AG’s opinion (on the matter), I tend to agree with his opinion.”
Leon Guerrero declined to comment further, “Because I know I’m being sued, I reserve the right to not say anything because I don’t want it used against me. So I’m sorry I’m not going to answer.”
Seeking to end the debate, Sen. Joe S. San Agustin introduced Bill 361-35 to establish clarity on the double pay issue for all emergencies declared by the Governor of Guam.
San Agustin said the provisions will be retroactive to the start of the public emergency declaration and defines the inclusion for all classified and unclassified employees who are required to report for duty during any emergency.
“With the opinion of the Attorney General, I sought to ensure that we did not miss out on the opportunity with this bill to support all employees in government service who are considered essential, in both classified and unclassified positions. This bill, if enacted, will make certain that there is no question as to who qualifies for the double pay,” San Agustin said.
“I realize that other pieces of legislation have been introduced to address this issue. They address the double pay issue relative to our COVID-19 pandemic," the senator said. "My bill will bring an end to the question on who may qualify for this benefit and when it applies- today and in the future." (With additional reports from Mar-vic Cagurangan)