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Use CARES Act to give $5,000 bonuses to DPW workers, Baltimore City Council members tell mayor

With just over three months left for Baltimore to spend its remaining federal CARES Act funding, two Baltimore City Council members want the mayor to use it to provide $5,000 bonuses for sanitation workers.

“Folks are risking life and limb when they get on that truck,” said Zeke Cohen, who represents the city’s first district. “I think we have a moral obligation to compensate them justly.”

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Together with Isaac “Yitzy” Schleiferof the 5th district, he authored a letter to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young Friday making the case that such a bonus could help stave off disaster at the Department of Public Works.

Cohen and Schleifer wrote in their letter: “Morale is incredibly low, and workers are terrified they may get sick next.” They are also calling for all workers to receive a $4 hourly raise, calling it “shameful” that some temporary workers make as little as $11 per hour. Schleifer this month introduced a City Council resolution entitled “Paying DPW Workers What They Deserve." It is currently in committee.

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Like other cities, Baltimore’s sanitation department is feeling pressure from an uptick in garbage combined with worker shortages amid the pandemic. Staff are currently collecting 14% more trash than last year, down from a high of 22% earlier in the pandemic. The increase, compounded by staff shortages as workers got sick with COVID-19 or stayed home rather than risk contracting it, prompted the city to suspend pickups of recyclables until Nov. 1.

The funding for the proposed bonus would come in the millions of dollars allocated to Baltimore via the CARES Act, a federal initiative to give money to state, local and tribal governments during the COVID-19 outbreak. The law requires money be used for expenditures made necessary by the public health emergency, according to the website for the U.S. Treasury. In Baltimore, some has gone to provide hotel rooms for people displaced by the closing of the city’s homeless shelters. Still more money has gone to support small businesses and prevent evictions.

The city has until Dec. 31 to spend the remaining money, or it goes back to the federal government. “That money is literally just sitting there,” Cohen said.

The $5,000 bonus, according to the letter, would be equivalent to making that raise retroactive for those who worked during the pandemic. While the CARES Act funding would cover the bonuses, the city would need to foot the bill for the proposed $4 raise.

Neither Young nor City Council President and Democratic mayoral nominee Brandon Scott responded to a request for comment. In an August letter to the acting head of DPW, Scott expressed frustration with the inconsistent trash pick up, saying the problem “predates this pandemic.”

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