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Pandemic pay at health department prompts questions

Divisive report details $846k in emergency pay, half went to top officials
Liane Jollon, the former executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, left the position in May 2023. She and other top executives are under scrutiny for emergency duty payments they received during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A report detailing the distribution of emergency compensation to senior leadership at San Juan Basin Public Health during the COVID-19 pandemic is dividing those charged with oversight of the department – leaving some skeptical of the handling of taxpayer dollars.

In accordance with SJBPH policy, some exempt employees – those who are expected to work until the job is done, sometimes exceeding the typical 40-hour week – were eligible to be compensated for work in excess of 40 hours per week during the declared public health emergency.

The report revealed that exempt employees were paid a total sum of $846,589 in emergency duty compensation during the unprecedented pandemic between March 2020 and May 2023.

After the decision to dissolve the public health district by Jan. 1, 2024, SJBPH and La Plata and Archuleta counties requested that the court appoint a receiver to be responsible for oversight of the department’s finances and assets during its dissolution. The receiver authored the report on emergency compensation at the request of commissioners in both counties.

Some called the report politically motivated, while others have said any insinuation of wrongdoing is “absolutely wrong.” Critics have called details of the report “eye opening” and “profoundly disappointing.”

Most notably, some observers are questioning the duration over which emergency compensation was paid, and the proportions paid to individual members of the department’s senior leadership.

In addition to her base salary, former Executive Director Liane Jollon received 25% of the total emergency compensation payments, amounting to $215,745.

Then-Deputy Director Tiffany Switzer, now the current interim director, received 15% of the money, or $127,365.

Tiffany Switzer, the interim executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, is among those who are now defending the extensive work the department did related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the compensation that followed. (Courtesy of San Juan Basin Public Health)

Emergency Manager Lori Zazzaro received 12% of the emergency compensation payments, or $99,007.

The remaining 48% of the money was distributed to 30 people.

The context of the spending is critical, say defenders of the department’s leadership, who also argue that hindsight may provide a distorted image of events.

“When you see that lump sum, it looks really huge, it looks really big,” said Shere Byrd, the vice president of the San Juan Basin Board of Health. “And if you look at it in terms of it was a federal emergency until May of 2023, they were being fiscally astute about the use of their money.”

Critics of the spending also recognize the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, the sudden strain it put on public health infrastructure and its prolonged duration. But they are holding a magnifying glass, before the public, over the emergency compensation policy and the distribution of funds.

“We were in a 100-year event, things were happening very quickly, it became almost immediately polarized in our country,” said La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton, who also sits on the department’s health board. “… I have a deep appreciation for Liane’s work. I have a deep appreciation for the people who worked under her and that will never change. And as a fiduciary of the organization, I will ask hard questions.”

The policy

The SJBPH policy on emergency compensation is a single-page document that lays out the scant conditions and requirements under which emergency compensation can be paid.

The Board of Health adopted the policy in 2015 after the Gold King Mine spill. Unlike other entities that respond to emergencies, the department had no policy through which exempt employees could be compensated for “extraordinary efforts” in those situations.

The “Emergency Duty Compensation for Exempt Employees” policy was adopted shortly thereafter, made retroactive to include time spent on the mine spill and affirmed again by the Board of Health in 2019.

The single-page policy says SJBPH will compensate exempt employees for all hours approved by the executive director that are “worked over the specified threshold of forty (40) hours per workweek.”

It also says that subject employees “shall maintain accurate records of all hours worked during the emergency,” and that the director may terminate a declared emergency, even if there are obligations or post-emergency actions necessary.

The details of employees’ eligibility and obligations have become critical as emergency compensation payments have come under scrutiny.

Unlike the SJBPH policy, La Plata County’s equivalent policy only takes effect after 48 hours; Eagle County’s policy generally takes effect after 50 hours, but the specific threshold is left up to the county manager.

Eagle County’s policy also states that “the work performed by the exempt employee must be primarily, but not exclusively, related to emergency response.”

The La Plata County policy does not directly say what work is eligible for EC, but notes that eligible activities include “extraordinary emergency operations, evacuations and sheltering, search and rescue, and public information.”

The receiver, Bellann Raile, wrote that “the policy claims that it is not intended to provide overtime compensation, but as a practical matter the policy in fact provides overtime compensation to exempt employees.”

However it was the oversight of the emergency compensation payments, a responsibility of Jollon’s, and the record-keeping obligations that accompanied them that raised the biggest questions.

In the La Plata County emergency compensation pay policy, County Manager Chuck Stevens points to a line in the “compliance” section of the document that stands out: “Care should be taken by the (department head/elected official) to utilize this policy judiciously and appropriately.”

“If the executive director is exercising words like ‘judiciously,’ ‘appropriately,’ ‘reasonable’ and ‘necessary,’ the policy could work,” Stevens said of the SJBPH document. “But it might have some holes in it.”

Senior leadership at the department – Jollon, Switzer and Interim Deputy Director Brian Devine – say that although the policy says the director has full discretion over who is eligible for emergency compensation, it’s not that simple in practice.

Declared emergencies are handled according to Incident Action Plans, which were rewritten weekly, and at some points daily, during the pandemic. The IAP contained specific objectives set by the incident commanders.

“Any organizational activity that is assigned in that IAP or supports the objectives of that IAP would be eligible based on our emergency management policies,” Jollon said.

Throughout the pandemic, total staff at SJBPH fluctuated between 72 and 105 employees. Approximately 30 employees were exempt, of which about half were considered eligible for emergency compensation at any given time.

Liane Jollon, former executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, speaks during a media briefing March 20, 2020, at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Jollon worked long hours at the beginning of the pandemic and was subject to harassment over public health restrictions. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
The money

Given the piecemeal nature of public health funding, emergency compensation was not drawn from a single source. There were 25 separate programs that provided COVID-19 funding to the department.

Of the $6.7 million in total contracts, $680,000 was provided by La Plata County. The remaining funding trickled down from federal agencies through state intermediaries.

The scale of emergency compensation payments in totality – $846,589 – has not in and of itself stirred up discomfort or ire.

“EC payments made to a majority of the SJBPH exempt employees appear subjectively reasonable and are supported by the proper documentation,” concludes the receiver’s report.

Others have gone even further in their support of the spending.

“For public health, there couldn’t have been a better use of COVID money,” Byrd said.

However, the percentage of the funding that went to top employees and the records that track the work for which that compensation was paid has drawn criticism.

“Total EC payments were weighed heavily toward a few staff (notably, Ms. Jollon) and the level of these payments and comparatively less documentation available supporting this extra time makes the payments of significantly more concern,” the report states.

Jollon’s employment contracts at the time indicate that she received several significant raises and bonuses during the period as well. In February 2020, the health board increased Jollon’s annual salary from $138,000 to $142,000, and made the raise retroactive to August 2018.

In August 2021, Jollon received a 12.6% raise, bringing her salary to $160,000, in addition to a one-time $16,000 bonus.

In August 2022, Jollon’s pay was bumped another 10.4% to $176,600, in addition to two $10,000 retention payments. She left the department in May 2023, before she was eligible for the second $10,000 bonus payment.

Liane Jollon, former executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said that “Our response was expensive, but there were no secrets to what we were doing.” (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Both the 2021 and 2022 contracts were approved by a unanimous vote of the health board.

Jollon is not defensive about her compensation during the period. The pandemic prompted a response to a public health threat the likes of which had not been encountered in a century, she said, and the people spearheading the various elements of that response all answered to her.

“Our response was expensive,” she said. “But there were no secrets to what we were doing.”

The driver of a car has a COVID-19 test done in 2021 at the new San Juan Basin Public Health free COVID-19 drive-thru testing site across the street from the Durango Public Library. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
The pandemic response and the time it took

With businesses back open, vaccines in abundant supply and social distancing in the rear view mirror, public health officials are reminding critics of pandemic emergency compensation spending of the work they did.

“It’s really, really, really hard sometimes to remember everything that’s happening in 2020,” Jollon said.

Contact tracing, testing and testing sites, protocols for handling exposures and mask ordinances were all systems that had to be built from the ground-up.

The hours documented on the timesheets of those heading up the response, which were reviewed by The Durango Herald, reflect the immense effort it took to address COVID-19 in 2020.

“It’s all perspective,” Byrd said. “You can make it look really bad or you can think about it in the context of the 100-year occasion that was taking place … plus the unique position of public health in that particular emergency situation – unique and untried. Public health had never been challenged in such a way before.”

The extraordinary efforts that staff members took were also effective, say the senior officials who oversaw those operations.

Jollon said a $980,000 grant for vaccine outreach in rural communities that the department received in 2021 is a prime example. Staff members worked around the clock for three days to meet a tight federal deadline, she said.

“That’s easy to ask your staff to work (on) tremendous deadlines – that’s not as easy to ask staff to do that if we’re not compensating people for their extra hours,” she said.

Across the nation, health care workers are experiencing widespread burnout from the stresses of their jobs, and Jollon said that the emergency compensation payments were also critical in retaining staff members during an exceptionally difficult period.

In 2023, Switzer, who by that time had taken over the role of finance director in addition to her regular duties, says the response was far from over.

A COVID-19 testing coordinator with San Juan Basin Public Health holds boxes of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests. Senior officials at the department described the extensive work required to initiate a rapid response to the pandemic. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Between Jan. 1, 2023, and the end of the public health emergency on May 11, Switzer worked 220.5 hours of emergency compensation, for which she was paid $13,702 in addition to her base salary.

In defense of those hours, she said that while the on-the-ground response had shrunk, there were still programs demanding attention. Widespread vaccination campaigns and testing were winding down, as Medicaid re-enrollment and efforts to continue providing COVID-19-related care wound up. Switzer oversaw all those operations.

She also added that many of the emergency compensation hours in spring 2023 were spent preparing for the 2022 annual state audit, in which inspectors choose a major funding source. In 2020 and 2021, auditors selected a COVID-19 program to examine, and Devine added they are likely to do so again this year. The audit was delayed until late August.

The oversight, then and now

The question of oversight – how much did the Board of Health know about emergency compensation, and to what extent, if at all, was the public’s trust violated – now lingers.

Board members agree that they never received granular, individualized data on emergency compensation payments per the stated policy, but disagree on the extent to which they were aware that the policy was being used.

“We were well aware that emergency compensation was being paid out for people who were working on the COVID emergency and were working over their normal hours of business due to the emergency, we were well aware of that,” Byrd said. “As to the details, we never looked at anybody’s salary, we have never (done that) and that is the operational part of the shop and we’re not an operational board.”

Commissioner Porter-Norton, who said she knew the policy existed, gave a contrasting characterization of her knowledge and said she was “profoundly disappointed” by the contents of the report.

“I had zero awareness of emergency compensation and it was not discussed at a board meeting where I was present,” she said.

Porter-Norton said she has missed only part of one Board of Health meeting, but also joined the board in February 2021, nearly a year into the pandemic.

Details of rising costs were included in financial reports given to members at board meetings. A response to the report, filed in court Friday afternoon by SJBPH’s attorney, states that “Finance Committee reports approved by the Board of Health ... clearly refer to ‘Emergency duty pay for COVID 19.’”

The Herald examined a sample of these finance reports and confirmed that negative variances were clearly attributed to emergency compensation, although the size of payments and individuals who received them were not detailed.

Internally, staff members kept detailed logs of their emergency duties at the beginning of the pandemic. They stopped maintaining those logs in July 2021 at the suggestion of Chief Financial Officer Lesley Marie, who died shortly thereafter.

After staff members stopped keeping those logs, they were supposed to keep notes on their emergency compensation time in their timesheets. Jollon never did, and Switzer’s notes faded by March 2022.

Switzer said that by that point, so much of her job had become COVID-19-related that “putting down when I did all day long on was determined to not be needed.”

Leadership also noted that when the state audited COVID-19 programs in 2021 and 2022, the timekeeping records and emergency compensation payments were among the operational elements to be scrutinized. The department’s practices were found to be in compliance with all requirements.

The question now before the department’s governing board, fiduciaries of taxpayer dollars and ultimately the public, is whether the costs associated with the pandemic response were reasonable, and whether those were incurred in a transparent manner.

A public Board of Health meeting to discuss the report is tentatively scheduled for Friday.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

A pharmacist with Mercy Regional Medical Center fills syringes with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The emergency compensation payments to upper executives at the public health department are under scrutiny following a report filed July 27. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)


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