Sheriff’s first responders getting hazard pay

One-time payment of $1,500 going to 104 employees
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The Shawano County Board approved paying first responders Wednesday with the sheriff’s department a one-time $1,500 hazard payment from Cares Act funding the county is receiving.

First responders in the sheriff’s department will include deputies, correctional officers with the jail, kitchen staff, evidence storage facility employees, sergeants, lieutenants and dispatchers, along with the communications supervisor. The hazard pay will not go to Sheriff Adam Bieber, the jail director or the chief deputy.

Finance director Nitta Charnon noted that $145,000 will be paid out to 104 employees with the sheriff’s department. Charnon said the funding would come from the $679,000 the county received from the Cares Act.

County Board Chairman Tom Kautza praised the measure, noting that it wouldn’t cost the county anything while helping jail staff and that the county was having a hard time finding a place to spend the money. Kautza noted it received the blessing of the executive committee and was seen as a way to help increase the starting pay for jail staff.

“Our jailers come and go, and I believe our starting pay for our jailers is $2 to $3 less than surrounding counties,” Kautza said. “All we are is a training ground. As soon as they get started and we train them, they get certified, but they’re not going to stay here for $2 to $3 less. They’re going to leave.”

Even though the measure passed, it came with its fair share of criticism.

Supervisor Joe Miller criticized the fact that the sheriff’s department was getting the funding when Sheriff Adam Bieber had announced earlier this year that he was not going to enforce the mask mandate from the state of Wisconsin.

“I need somebody to define the hazard. I need someone to sit up and explain to me what the hazard is,” Miller said. “Everything I have seen — the rhetoric coming directly from Sheriff Bieber over the past months — is there’s no hazard.”

Bieber said he required masks at the jail “right from the get-go” and made sure all employees in his department had N95 masks for use when they worked.

“Despite what’s being said out in the public, I do care about safety. I care about my employees’ safety,” Bieber said. “This is something that I pushed for back in April, to make sure they got hazard pay because I required them to wear masks. We have a lot of employees that have health risks, and they have family that are at risk, and they’re in an environment that was hazardous.”

Bieber acknowledged he prefers to give the public the choice whether to mask up or not, but when it comes to his employees, he prefers to pull out the stops to keep them safe and working.

“Whether I enforce the mask mandate or not does not mean I don’t take the health threat seriously,” Bieber said, “but I believe in people’s right to choose what they do with their health and how they act. That’s what I believe.”

Miller, who abstained from the vote on the hazard pay, clarified that he has respect for law enforcement, noting he carried a gun and a badge in the county years ago.

“I just hope everybody in the county takes this issue seriously,” he said.

Supervisor Deb Noffke questioned why the hazard pay did not extend to office staff, noting that she understood why other employees were receiving the hazard pay but didn’t understand why some with the sheriff’s department were being excluded.

“We have office staff that has to deal with the public through the window,” Noffke said. “If it’s money that’s there and available, shouldn’t we give it to everyone that’s eligible?”

Charnon noted the Cares Act funding is specified for first responders by the federal government. She checked with the state on the restrictions but pointed out that she would have liked to given it to all of the sheriff’s employees.

“There have been a lot of employees that have been here are worked through this (pandemic),” Charnon said. “I’m not discounting them at all. However, deputies have not had any deviation to their work schedules. They’ve had to be here and respond to the public.”

Supervisors also questioned why the county was not also extending hazard pay to firefighters, who are also considered first responders with law enforcement. Despite the clarification that fire departments are funded through cities, villages and towns, some on the board felt the county should try to help them, too.

“They volunteer their lives to go out,” said Supervisor Sandy Steinke. “I know several firefighters, even in the Shawano fire department that have come in contact in COVID from going into situations.”

Noffke also felt that the county should extend the hazard pay to all first responders working in the county, even if they don’t work for the county.

“We don’t have a county fire department, but let’s face it, all these smaller municipalities are part of the county,” Noffke said. “Have we reached out to the local fire departments to see if we can at least assist them. We could give them some advice and say here’s something to apply for, can’t we?”

Kautza pointed out that municipalities received their own pool of Cares Act funding that can be used to help their fire departments.

The pay must be distributed to the sheriff’s first responders no later than Nov. 6, according to Charnon.