The Rock County Board is scheduled to vote Thursday night on proposed pay hikes and signing bonuses for its staff at the troubled Rock Haven nursing home.
The move comes in the wake of controversy over Rock Haven’s decision to lay off staff members who declined to get COVID-19 vaccinations. Rock Haven already has suffered staff shortages, but the vaccine controversy made things worse, said board member Doug Wilde, who proposed the pay hikes and other changes.
Wilde spoke Monday night to the board Staff Committee, where six of nine committee members pushed through a change that at least would delay the pay hikes.
The resolution also calls for hiring a consultant to investigate the work environment, climate and culture at Rock Haven, “including potential violations of the personnel ordinance and the human resources section of the administrative policy and procedure manual related to interactions between management and staff.”
Board member Russ Podzilni proposed holding off on the pay hikes and other proposed measures until the investigation is complete.
Committee members Alan Sweeney, Louis Peer, Kevin Leavy, Bob Yeomans and Mary Beaver agreed.
Podzilni argued that the proposal relies too much on compensation and that officials should hear what staff management problems exist before addressing the staff shortage.
The resolution will be presented to the board’s Health Services Committee on Wednesday and Finance Committee on Thursday before the full board meeting that night.
If the three committees disagree, then the original resolution—without Podzilni’s amendment—will be presented to the board, Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee said.
Rock Haven staff members are among the lowest paid on the county payroll, according to the resolution.
County Administrator Josh Smith said at Monday’s meeting that the proposed pay hikes would put Rock Haven pay rates ahead of the average for private nursing homes.
Smith acknowledged that Rock Haven’s staff receives better retirement benefits than in private nursing homes, but he said that’s not a strong selling point to younger recruits.
Peer said the recently hired Rock Haven administrator should be given time to assess the situation before the board makes changes.
Beaver questioned whether higher pay would make a difference, saying: “All the money in the world is not going to make people happy to come to work.”
Rock Haven had 40 vacancies among its certified nursing assistants as of Feb. 11, an increase of 12 over the number of vacancies Jan. 1, according to an administration memo.
The facility also has six registered nurse vacancies out of 26 such positions authorized and four vacancies among license practical nurses out of 16 authorized, the memo states.
CNAs and activity therapy assistants would see increases of between 90 cents and $1.14 per hour, leading to hourly pay of $15.32 to $19.40 an hour.
Rock Haven staff used a listening session Wednesday night to take on the county-run nursing home’s administration, urging Rock County officials to halt what they call a culture of heavy-handedness, retaliation and bullying by top Rock Haven officials.
LPNs also would get raises around $1 an hour, leading to hourly pay of $23.84 to $27.37 an hour.
Registered nurses would see $1 per hour increases, leading to hourly pay of $30.06 to $40.47 per hour.
“At first blush, it looks like a good idea,” said county board Chairman Rich Bostwick, speaking Monday before the meeting. “I think it’s been well thought out. It’ll go a long ways to stop the bleeding, and it should boost morale right off the bat.”
Some skilled nursing facilities in the area offer $2,000 bonuses to new staff, and the county would match that amount for CNAs, LPNs and RNs who take jobs through the end of the year.
They would get $500 at hiring, $500 at six months and $1,000 at one year. Current staff employed less than six months would receive $500 at six months and $1,000 at one year.
The plan also would give cash rewards to Rock Haven staff who refer certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses or registered nurses who take jobs at Rock Haven.
Two law firms are pressing Rock County to withdraw its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy at Rock Haven nursing home or allow laid-off workers who have declined vaccination to return to their jobs.
The referring staff member would receive incentives of $500 when the new hire begins working, another $500 when the person reaches six months on the job and $1,000 at 12 months of employment.
RNs now are paid time and a half when they volunteer for shifts. The new plan would give the same incentive to CNAs, LPNs, activity therapy assistants, environmental service workers and food service staff.
Likewise, the new plan would increase shift-differential pay from $1 to $2 for CNAs and LPNs working evening or night shift, equaling the differential now paid to RNs.
The plan calls for re-establishing a “pipeline” of CNAs who graduate from Blackhawk Technical College, with Rock Haven covering school costs for those who take jobs at the facility.
The costs of all the changes would be about $297,539 in 2021, with costs rising in 2022.
For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard—one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19—the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.
Then Pollock knew her tribute, however heartfelt, would never begin to convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed 500,000 lives in the U.S. and counting.
“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”
After a year that has darkened doorways across the U.S., the pandemic surpassed a milestone Monday that once seemed unimaginable, a stark confirmation of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.
“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”
Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.
At other moments of epic loss, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.
“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.
In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.
Still, at half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.
“The people we lost were extraordinary,” President Joe Biden said Monday, urging Americans to remember the individual lives claimed by the virus, rather than be numbed by the enormity of the toll.
“Just like that,” he said, “so many of them took their last breath alone.”
The toll, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.
Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.
The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.
“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. ... I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.
The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on Jan. 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a 3-year-old son.
“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.
By late last fall, 54% of Americans reported knowing someone who had died of COVID-19 or had been hospitalized with it, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The grieving was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.
Deaths have nearly doubled since then, with the scourge spreading far beyond the Northeast and Northwest metropolitan areas slammed by the virus last spring and the Sun Belt cities hit hard last summer.
In some places, the seriousness of the threat was slow to sink in.
When a beloved professor at a community college in Petoskey, Michigan, died last spring, residents mourned, but many remained doubtful of the threat’s severity, Mayor John Murphy said. That changed over the summer after a local family hosted a party in a barn. Of the 50 who attended, 33 became infected. Three died, he said.
“I think at a distance people felt ‘This isn’t going to get me,’” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude has totally changed from ‘Not me. Not our area. I’m not old enough,’ to where it became the real deal.”
For Anthony Hernandez, whose Emmerson-Bartlett Memorial Chapel in Redlands, California, has been overwhelmed handling burial of COVID-19 victims, the most difficult conversations have been the ones without answers, as he sought to comfort mothers, fathers and children who lost loved ones.
His chapel, which arranges 25 to 30 services in an ordinary month, handled 80 in January. He had to explain to some families that they would need to wait weeks for a burial.
“At one point, we had every gurney, every dressing table, every embalming table had somebody on it,” he said.
In Boise, Idaho, Pollock started the memorial in her yard last fall to counter what she saw as widespread denial of the threat. When deaths spiked in December, she was planting 25 to 30 new flags at a time. But her frustration has been eased somewhat by those who slow or stop to pay respect or to mourn.
“I think that is part of what I was wanting, to get people talking,” she said, “Not just like, ‘Look at how many flags are in the yard today compared to last month,’ but trying to help people who have lost loved ones talk to other people.”
With sunset remarks and a national moment of silence, President Joe Biden on Monday confronted head-on the country’s once-unimaginable loss—half a million Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic—as he tried to strike a balance between mourning and hope.
Addressing the “grim, heartbreaking milestone” directly and publicly, Biden stepped to a lectern in the White House Cross Hall, unhooked his face mask and delivered an emotion-filled eulogy for 500,071 Americans he said he felt he knew.
“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing,” he said Monday evening. “There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary.”
“Just like that,” he added, “so many of them took their last breath alone.”
A president whose own life has been marked by family tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms, referencing his own losses as he tried to comfort the huge number of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the pandemic.
“I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” said Biden, who has long addressed grief more powerfully than perhaps any other American public figure. “I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”
The president, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer, leavened the grief with a message of hope.
“This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again. And as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind.”
He said, “We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or on the news. We must do so to honor the dead. But, equally important, to care for the living.”
The president ordered flags on federal property lowered to half staff for five days and then led the moment of communal mourning for those lost to a virus that often prevents people from gathering to remember their loved ones. Monday’s bleak threshold of 500,000 deaths was playing out against contradictory crosscurrents: an encouraging drop in coronavirus cases and worries about the spread of more contagious variants.
Biden’s management of the pandemic will surely define at least the first year of his presidency, and his response has showcased the inherent tension between preparing the nation for dark weeks ahead while also offering optimism about pushing out vaccines that could, eventually, bring this American tragedy to a close.
After he spoke, the president, along with first lady Jill Biden,, and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, stood outside the White House for a moment of silence at sundown. Black bunting draped the doorway they walked through. Five hundred brilliantly lit candles—each representing 1,000 people lost—illuminated the stairways on either side of them as the Marine Band played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The milestone comes just over a year after the first confirmed U.S. fatality from the coronavirus. The pandemic has since swept across the world and the U.S., stressing the nation’s health care system, rattling its economy and rewriting the rules of everyday society.
In one of his many symbolic breaks with his predecessor, Biden has not shied away from offering remembrances for the lives lost to the virus. His first stop after arriving in Washington on the eve of his inauguration was to attend a twilight ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to mourn the dead.
That somber moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration—typically a celebratory time when America marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power—was a measure of the enormity of loss for the nation.
The COVID-19 death total in the United States had just crossed 400,000 when Biden took the oath of office. An additional 100,000 have died in the past month.
Former President Donald Trump invariably looked to play down the total, initially claiming the virus would go away on its own and later locking into a prediction that America would suffer far fewer than 100,000 deaths. Once the total eclipsed that mark, Trump shifted gears again and said that scale of loss was actually a success story because it could have been much worse.
Outside of perfunctory tweets marking the milestones of 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, Trump oversaw no moment of national mourning, no memorial service. At the Republican National Convention, he made no mention of the suffering, leaving that to first lady Melania Trump.
And at campaign rallies across the nation, he erroneously predicted that the nation was “rounding the corner” on the virus while he disregarded safety measures such as masks and pushed governors to lift restrictions against public health advice. In audio tapes released last fall, it was revealed that Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in March that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Biden, by contrast, has long drawn on his own personal tragedy as he comforts those who grieve. He has pledged to level with the American public on the severity of the crisis and has repeatedly warned that the nation was going through a “very dark winter,” one now challenged by the arrival of more contagious virus variants.
Biden also has deliberately set expectations low—particularly on vaccinations and when the nation can return to normal—knowing he could land a political win by exceeding them. He is on track to far exceed his initial promise to deliver 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days, with some public health experts now urging him to set a far more ambitious goal. The administration says it expects to have enough vaccine available for every American by the end of July.
Biden’s reference to next Christmas for a possible return to normalcy raised eyebrows across a pandemic-weary nation and seemed less optimistic than projections made by others in his own administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has suggested a summer comeback.
Merlin G. Christianson
Dennis J. Indgjer
Walter C. Kopp
Walter J. Pakes
Frederick C. “Rick” Santillo
Devon J. Schlegel
Jennifer D. Schulz
Bonnie L. (Loveland) Schumacher
The Janesville City Council will not vote on a proposed transportation utility next month as anticipated, but some council members hope to bring the utility to a vote later on.
The council voted 5-1-1 on Monday to pause action on a proposed transportation utility until after a new council is seated in April. Jim Farrell voted against and Doug Marklein, who is running for reelection, abstained.
The vote will not halt all work on the proposed creation of a transportation utility, but it will prevent the council from taking official action.
Paul Benson said he wants members of the council who will return in April to continue working with city staff and the public on refining the proposed utility and garnering public feedback.
Council members are specifically interested in talking further with the business community, which would bear the most obvious financial impact if a utility goes into effect.
Forward Janesville, the city’s chamber of commerce, issued a memo last week asking the council to delay a decision so the business community could have input.
Nine representatives of the business community wrote to the council prior to Monday’s meeting opposing the utility and expressing the desire to have more input, Sue Conley, council president, said.
Few opportunities have been allowed so far for public comment on the topic. Previous study sessions did not include time for taking public comments.
A timeline from city staff had the council taking a vote on the utility March 22 for a 2022 implementation.
Council members largely thought Monday night that there are too many remaining questions and not enough public input to make a decision by then.
Another significant factor was that, come April, at least three and potentially four city council seats would be occupied by new members. Conley, Farrell and Tom Wolfe are not running for reelection this spring.
Council members had been concerned about bringing new members up to speed, which conflicted with the city’s timeline that some people characterized as aggressive.
The council discussed the utility for most of a meeting Monday night that lasted more than three hours.
A transportation utility functions like a water, stormwater or trash utility, implementing a user-based fee to pay for road repair. The advantage it provides, some argue, is using cash to pay for road maintenance instead of borrowing.
The utility would charge property owners a per-trip fee based on the use of the property, whether commercial or residential. Every time a vehicle leaves or enters a driveway counts as one “trip,” and the number of trips determines how much a property owner pays.
Trip averages are determined by the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ national trip generation data used frequently in construction.
Council members Monday heard a more detailed description of how fees would be established.
All single- and two-family residential houses would have fees determined on an average of 9.4 trips per day.
But trip calculations for commercial properties differ widely. It would take the city months to determine how to apply the trip data and formula to each individual property, interim Finance Director Dave Godek said.
The city has already identified at least 87 different classifications of land use and more would likely be identified as work continues, Godek said.
Fee calculations differ depending on land use and size.
For example, churches generate, based on the national data, about seven trips per 1,000 square feet, meaning a 1,000-square-foot church would pay less than a 10,000-square-foot church.
Adjustments would have to be made to accommodate seasonal businesses and mixed-use properties, Godek said.
The council has suggested eliminating the city’s wheel tax and borrowing some money in the first five years of the program to offset the fee.
But council members said Monday it might be worth reexamining other models given the sticker shock many experienced when they saw 20-year fee projections presented earlier this month.
A representative from the city’s consulting firm said figures now are conservative and could go down in implementation, but he was not sure by how much.
The city currently fixes 12 miles of road each year on top of other as-needed maintenance.
Road construction and maintenance are funded now through three primary channels: 68% of the cost is paid through borrowing, 18% through the stormwater utility and 14% through the wheel tax.
City officials say the borrowing method is unsustainable.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, city staff recommended approving the utility in March but also lowering the city’s maximum allowance for debt issuance to ensure more debt would not replace the savings generated because of the utility.