City of Lawrence will continue to pay all employees, but some will be assigned new duties
photo by: Nick Krug
The City of Lawrence employs more than 800 people, all of whom will be getting paychecks regardless of whether they’ve been able to work their full hours or perform their usual duties.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of city buildings, cancellation of recreational functions, suspension of most municipal court dockets and a hiatus for parking enforcement, the paychecks for city employees will keep flowing for at least the next couple of months.
City Manager Craig Owens told the Journal-World Friday that the city is developing a plan to transition workers affected by the closures to new duties. Though those new duties are still being set up, Owens said the city has committed to paying all of its employees through at least May 31.
Owens said the decision to keep everyone on staff and payroll steady spoke to the city’s values and the desire for the city to be a model employer.
“We want to make sure that they and their families feel supported,” Owens said. “We’re trying to both continue vital emergency operations and vital core services in our community and take care of the people and their families that depend on us as their employer.”
Transitioning to new duties
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health initially ordered schools, recreation facilities and public libraries closed March 13. Additional state and local health orders and closures have followed as more coronavirus cases have been identified locally and nationally, including both local and statewide stay-at-home orders that involve closing all nonessential businesses. After the local stay-at-home order, the city extended the closure of its recreation facilities and canceled all spring programming, public reservations and permitted events through May 17. The Lawrence Public Library also announced it would remain closed through May 17 in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.
The city has 798 full-time employees and 15 part-time employees, according to Owens. He said as the city adjusts to new ways of doing business, city staff is working to identify all employees whose previous duties are temporarily obsolete and identify new roles for them. He said at this point, that restructuring is ongoing and he does not know how many people are in that situation.
“While we’re trying to figure out where the needs are, we are trying to adjust some people’s duties and reprogram them into where we may need additional help,” Owens said. “All of this is transitioning and is very fluid over the last couple of weeks.”
The library has also committed to paying all staff members, whether they are working or not, throughout the closure. Since property tax revenue supports the library’s operations, there is little to no revenue loss from the closure, apart from minimal fees for services like copies and room rentals. Executive Director Brad Allen said the library’s funding has allowed it to avoid the revenue decisions that other businesses and organizations must make. He said continuing to pay all staff is a way to help lighten the economic impact of the virus and loss of paychecks.
“If you want to look at it from a hard-nosed economic perspective, that’s people not making rent, not having money to buy food, that’s putting more people in financial jeopardy that the system would have to take care of,” Allen said. “To me it’s the right thing to do.”
Allen said the library has about 80 employees, including both full-time and part-time workers. He said there are some employees whose duties are currently obsolete or minimal now that the building is closed, including security guards, custodians and those who work customer service desks and handle materials. It also includes a few people who have considerable child care needs to tend to at home and for the time being cannot contribute. Currently, Allen said that amounts to about $47,000 in wages per month that the library is paying for people not able to work right now.
But similar to the city’s restructuring, Allen said the library is in the process of shifting duties as it transitions to providing more programming online. Specifically, he said about 60 of the library’s employees, or about three-quarters of them, are already working from home. That includes the library’s 13-person leadership team and others who have already started helping prepare online programming, such as virtual story times and book club meetings.
The decision to keep payroll steady will likely have impacts on the city’s budget. In addition to the revenue that the parks and recreation department generates, the city’s budget is heavily reliant on sales tax collections that are likely to take a hit from business closures during the stay-at-home order. The city’s 2020 budget assumes a sales tax growth of 2% and projects sales tax revenues of about $42.3 million, which amounts to about 20% of the city’s total revenue.
Regarding sales tax collections, Owens said the city will be watching the impact of the stay-at-home order on online sales and whether those tax collections will help offset the decrease in sales in brick-and-mortar stores. Regardless, he said he expected the city’s budget process to present challenges.
“This year budgeting will be very challenging because of the amount of uncertainty on both sides of the balance sheet,” Owens said. “But we’re going to have to go into it and lay out some options, priorities, and we’ll have to do a lot (of) contingency planning.”
The city joins Douglas County in its decision to continue paying all local government employees. On Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to approve a proposal to pay county employees regardless of whether they must report to work under the stay-at-home orders issued by health officials. The county has about 400 employees, and county officials said that while a “large amount” of employees were still able to work in the field or online, some employees were not working.
More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)
As the pandemic continues, the Journal-World will be making coverage of COVID-19 available outside of the paywall on LJWorld.com.
Find all coverage of city, county and state responses to the virus at: ljworld.com/coronavirus/
Please consider subscribing to support the local journalists who are helping to inform our community: ljworld.com/subscribe/