DENVER — As the pandemic brought life as we know it to a halt, the federal government doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to help pay for COVID-19-related costs. The money went to cities and counties across the state through what became known as CARES Act funding.
Denver7 Investigates has been digging through records to find out how the money was spent as our state rebounds.
Our investigation found some city and county leaders chose to put some of the money toward first responders, while others did not award hazard pay to police officers, firefighters, and other emergency workers.
“We were able to get a little over a million dollars for both police and fire,” said Aurora City Councilman Curtis Gardner.
Gardner, as the chair of the city’s public safety committee, introduced a resolution last year to use CARES Act funding for police and fire crews. Each officer and firefighter who interacted directly with the public received, on average, an extra $3,000 in 2020.
“They went through a very tough time, especially at the start of the pandemic. It took time to ramp up testing. It took time to ramp up PPE and it was really important for me to say, ‘Hey, we recognize the sacrifice that you’re making,’” he said.
And Aurora wasn’t the only one to do so.
Other city leaders, county commissioners awarded hazard pay
Denver7 Investigates found Thornton, Jefferson County, Lakewood and Aurora all gave frontline workers hazard pay using CARES Act funding, but the amount varied among municipalities.
“This is not about the hazard pay money. It’s far more than the money,” Thornton Councilman David Acunto said during a council meeting last April. “The city of Thornton’s asking their essential employees to take greater risks.”
Records show Thornton spent more than $200,000 in CARES Act money to allot hazard pay to its frontline workers. Those employees took home an extra $250 in March and April.
“Two hundred and fifty dollars may not be that much, but it’s a small token and appreciation of those working in direct contact with the public, and I want this hazard pay for them,” Acunto said.
Lakewood police officers took home an extra $1,800 in hazard pay in 2020. Jefferson County Open Space gave extra pay to 16 park services staff and 23 park rangers, which added up to $1,250 per employee. Those workers were cleaning restrooms, handling trash and enforcing rules in county parks during the pandemic.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office took a different approach. Its 500-plus first responders and emergency workers were given $889,092 total in hazard pay.
The money first came from savings because of resignations and retirements. The sheriff’s office is now asking to be reimbursed for those funds using CARES Act dollars.
For Gardner, the hazard pay was about sending a message to those who put their lives at risk every day to keep people safe during the pandemic.
“I’m really glad we were able to do this,” Gardner said. “(They were) going into homes not knowing what they’d find on the other side, not knowing if someone was sick,” he said.
Other Colorado front-line workers didn’t get hazard pay
While a handful of Colorado communities chose to use some of their CARES Act funding for hazard pay, other leaders did not give their emergency workers extra pay.
When the federal government gave local municipalities CARES Act funding, there were stipulations on how it could be used, but no community was required to use it the same way.
One of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies, the Denver Police Department, did not award hazard pay, nor did the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
“One jurisdiction, maybe just north of us, was using it. Yet we were not,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said.
Spurlock said instead of hazard pay, Douglas County commissioners, in collaboration with the sheriff’s office, chose to use the money to give deputies 80 hours of additional sick leave for time off they could if use they got sick with COVID-19 or had to take care a family member.
“I think it was a comforting insurance for employees,” he said.
Spurlock said his office also used the money to ramp up personal protective equipment for employees.
“It’s not just about the pay,” Spurlock said. “It’s about making sure that they’re safe every day.”
While Spurlock said he understands why other agencies applied for it, he said his deputies were out doing the job they’re paid to do.
“I think it did lend itself a little weird feeling of, quite frankly, taking hazard pay for doing a job we do every day,” Spurlock said.
Denver7 Investigates is continuing to review records showing how communities used CARES Act funding.
If you’re aware of any questionable spending by your community please send us an email at Jennifer.Kovaleski@thedenverchannel.com.