Hundreds of Westmoreland County employees were set to be furloughed indefinitely at the end of the workday Friday.
The Westmoreland County commissioners on Thursday said the number of county workers affected remained to be determined, but commissioners chairman Sean Kertes estimated “the final number will be between 460 and 500 employees.”
The commissioners had previously announced that non-essential government operations were suspended, effective March 18, amid budgetary strains and public health concerns brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that prompted the commissioners to declare a state of emergency in the county last month.
Since then, many county employees have been instructed to work from home or have been off the job but had been receiving pay. Other essential employees that were required to report to work for the county since the changes were paid overtime wages during the past two weeks.
The commissioners said Thursday a financial analysis of the effects of the staffing changes in March had not yet been completed. The county entered 2020 in a tight spot financially.
The previous board of commissioners approved a $341 million budget for 2020, which included a 2.38% tax increase — the county’s first property tax hike in 15 years — expected to generate roughly $1.86 million in new revenue. The budget showed a $5.5 million deficit balanced using money from a surplus fund that is expected to be nearly exhausted by the end of the year.
Since 2015, the county’s fund balance has declined steadily from more than $56 million to a projection of $7 million at the end of 2020, according to county budget figures.
Furloughed workers will continue to receive health benefits. Most are expected to return to their jobs when normal county operations resume.
The commissioners at Thursday’s meeting approved policy changes under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave and Emergency Paid Sick Leave policies that allow county employees to receive paid sick leave and address child day care issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know this week coming up will be a tough week. We stand united in solidarity amid this pandemic,” Kertes said.
The commissioners also on Thursday approved an agreement with Amerisafe Group to screen public safety employees for coronavirus symptoms as they report for work, with the county working to expand the program to include screenings for courthouse employees and visitors.
The professional services agreement with Amerisafe Group runs through April 30. Under the agreement, Amerisafe will provide trained professionals to serve as employee screeners as dispatchers arrive at the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety headquarters during the COVID-19 pandemic at a rate of $60 per hour ($90 per hour for overtime), plus the cost of all personal protective equipment and digital thermometers. The commissioners have the option to extend the contract if needed.
The screeners will take the temperature of anyone reporting to work, and anyone with a fever will be sent home, county officials said.
The commissioners noted that in-house staff at the Westmoreland County Prison, the county’s juvenile detention center and the county-owned nursing home, Westmoreland Manor, have been screening employees for several weeks.
Kertes said officials are in discussions with Amerisafe to expand the screenings to include employees and visitors at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.
“We need to make sure our employees and the public are safe,” Kertes said.
The commissioners announced the county will light up the dome of the courthouse beginning this weekend to show support for county employees and other essential workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioner Gina Cerilli also called on county residents to take part in a regional effort kickstarted by the City of Pittsburgh to show support for those working through the pandemic. At 8 p.m. April 7, and again on April 14, residents are asked to turn on their porch lights and applaud healthcare workers, first responders, delivery drivers, grocery store workers and other essential employees.
“If Westmoreland County residents want to join in this, that would be great,” Cerilli said.
In other business of note Thursday, the commissioners approved:
• Awarding the bid for the Westmoreland County Prison kitchen floor replacement project to Wexford Contracting, LLC at a cost of $150,654 for general construction and $33,046 for removal and reinstallation of kitchen equipment. Work on the project, and others, will remain on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, the commissioners noted. Prison officials had eyed the kitchen floor replacement project for more than a year, but had difficulty initially finding a contractor willing to take on the liability of moving and reinstalling the expensive commercial kitchen equipment;
• Awarding a bid to Wilson Restoration for exterior masonry cleaning at the prison for $211,452;
• Submitting a grant application to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources seeking $1 million in grant funding for renovation at Northmoreland Park;
• Change orders to agreements with CKI-Curry & Kepple, Inc. and Custom Contracting granting extensions to the completion dates for their respective rehabilitation projects at Twin Lakes and Mammoth parks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic;
• Purchasing a 4500Z Ventrac Tractor with accessories from Fletcher Outdoor Power Equipment for $38,526.25;
• Awarding the bid for a new metal roof at the Westmoreland County Department of Public Works maintenance building to Blair Construction for $86,900;
• Application and agreement for Help America Vote Act (HAVA) grant funds totaling $410,992.94;
• Appointing Julie Sacriponte to the Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau Advisor Board through Dec. 31, 2022.