City of Houston

To Close Budget Gaps, Thousands Of Houston City Employees Are Being Reassigned To Conduct COVID-19 Screenings

The plan is helping to close a $169 million budget shortfall while avoiding unpaid furlough days for 3,000 workers.

Council Member Mike Knox conducts COVID-19 temperature screenings outside a city building on Sept. 4.

Thousands of Houston city employees are temporarily reassigned due to this year's budget shortfall, many of them conducting COVID-19 temperature screenings at city-owned buildings for 10 days through the end of 2020.

The move comes as cities and states around the country are struggling to fill budget gaps created by the economic fallout of the pandemic.

In May, Mayor Sylvester Turner proposed 10-day furloughs for 3,000 municipal workers, which he said would close about $7 million of the total $169 million budget shortfall. While the city received $404 million in federal CARES Act funding, the mayor said the money must be used on expenses related to COVID-19 and cannot be used to plug the city's budget gap.

The city passed a $5.1 billion budget in June — raising police funds to $964 million — that avoided unpaid furlough days for workers. Just last week, Los Angeles City Council voted to furlough 15,000 municipal workers, amounting to a 10% pay cut.

But not all Houston officials are on board with the plan to shuffle employees.

Critics like At-Large Council member Mike Knox said the redeployment should be voluntary for workers, allowing them to choose whether to take an unpaid furlough day or possibly risk exposure to the coronavirus.

Knox said he's planning to cover all 40 shifts assigned to his employees through the end of 2020. During his first week, he took temperatures at a tunnel entrance downtown near City Hall and at the Hobby Airport employee entrance.

"The inability to make a choice to spend a furlough day without pay or come down here and run the risk of getting a disease I think is unfair," Knox said. "So I've told my staff that I will work their shifts for them, so that they don't get in trouble. Because I'm not on the list. Amazingly enough, all of the elected officials are exempted from this job."

During his shift downtown, Knox said he was there to ensure his staffers aren’t put at risk for COVID-19.

"My chief of staff has a 10-year-old son — he's worried about him getting sick. I have another person who is a Black female works in my office — she's been told that Black people are highly susceptible to this and she's concerned," Knox said. "I've got an 80-year-old woman working for me part time. Of course she's in the danger zone at 80 years old."

Knox also said the redeployment takes advantage of federal CARES act funding, which he called an inappropriate use of funds.

At a recent council meeting, Turner said the city will work with employees who have individual health risks.

"Instead of doing the 3,000 furloughs, we agreed to use city employees to do the temperature checks," Turner said. "But if there are individual employees that have any particular issues they should talk to HR."

Turner questioned Knox's concerns about employee safety, implying the council member doesn't always wear a mask at work.

"If you have staff members who have health risks and let's say you were not wearing your mask, you are running the risk of exposing them more than them doing temperature checks," Turner said. "So we cannot have it both ways."

District A Council member Amy Peck said her office had a mixed reaction to the redeployment.

"I wouldn't say that they're thrilled. They're really hard workers and they don't love the idea of taking days away from what they love doing every day," Peck said. "But they're willing to do what needs to be done and they're ready to do the deployment."

Peck said on the first day of the redeployment program, one of her staffers was assigned to a closed library in her district.

“There were three city staffers scheduled for the whole day to check the temperature of four library staffers,” Peck said.

Peck praised the program as a creative approach to prevent furloughs but agreed with Knox that workers should have had the opportunity to opt out.

"We could've done it where people could either take a furlough day or go work one of the redeployment days and that way they can make that choice for themselves," Peck said.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story attributed to the mayor’s office an account of City Council member Mike Knox declining to wear a mask during his shift taking temperatures. That information was relayed to the mayor’s office from a third party, and the reference has been removed.

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