County workers who lost homes in wildfires get extra 40 hours off

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Sonoma County government employees who lost homes in last year’s wildfires will benefit from 40 additional hours of paid time off under a plan approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

Nearly 140 people who work for the county are eligible for the program, according to staff estimates. The total value of the extra paid time is projected at $404,500, a cost county departments have already budgeted for, staff said.

The idea is to provide workers more flexibility to manage their rebuilding and recovery efforts, coming in response to a survey showing paid time off was the greatest need among fire survivors in the county workforce.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s vice chairman, called Tuesday’s move a “very appropriate and just thing to do.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane conveyed a similar sentiment, noting many of the survivors her office engages with are feeling “overwhelmed” and “defeated.”

“It’s likely that many of these fire survivors who work for the county fit into that missing middle of individuals who earn too much to qualify for some of the public assistance and philanthropic dollars that have been available,” Zane said. “And yet they’re not wealthy and they need that extra boost.”

County officials previously set up a disaster leave program, allowing fire-affected employees to tap into a “bank” of 3,324 hours of leave time contributed by other workers.

So far, 20 employees have used a little more than half of those hours, which they could only take advantage of after using up their own accrued vacation time balances.

Supervisors agreed Tuesday to extend that program for a year after the emergency declaration from the wildfires expires. The board has yet to let the emergency proclamation run out, voting most recently Aug. 28 to extend it for another month.

The county also provided its staff who lost homes in October with a one-time benefit where they could cash out up to $10,000 in accrued vacation time. Twenty employees received a total of $153,216 through that program, according to the county.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, the only board member who lost a home in the fires, supported the creation of the new 40-hour leave program. But she encouraged her colleagues to consider expanding it in the future.

“I’d really like to know how many of our employees fit into those categories where they are trying to rebuild a rental unit or are they caretaking for parents or siblings who lost homes,” she said. “That employee may be the only source of stability for the family.”

The county also is planning a series of monthly meetings to provide resources for fire-affected employees, including those helping family members whose homes burned down. The meetings are scheduled to start in October and run through January.

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