President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion economic stimulus package on March 27 designed to provide financial relief to American workers and expand unemployment insurance during the growing coronavirus pandemic. Hutto City Council members are looking to this legislation to see whether and how it can help the 48 city workers laid off last week.

The city of Hutto’s layoffs did not occur in a vacuum: More than 155,000 out-of-work Texans filed for unemployment relief the week of March 21, according to the Texas Tribune. However, Council Member Mike Snyder alleged March 24 that the coronavirus was not the only reason the city laid off nearly a third of its staff. Rather, Snyder said, he believed the layoffs were related to financial mismanagement and city spending.

Hutto City Council will host a special called meeting March 30 to discuss current financials and the operating budget approved Sept. 19 for fiscal year 2019-20. Included in the discussion are a proposed stimulus package for furloughed employees and consideration of suspending City Council pay for six months in an effort to help reinstate as many employees as possible.

In a March 30 phone call with Community Impact Newspaper, Council Member Scott Rose said that from his understanding of the federal economic stimulus package, furloughed employees would receive their salary payments through the federal government, while their benefits would be covered at the city level.

“If I can afford to pay them, if the council or the city can afford to pay them, great. But if someone else is paying them, that's great too,” Rose said. “We impacted a lot of lives, and you know, I really want these people to get paid.”

Key highlights of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act include the expansion of unemployment insurance for qualifying recipients, who will receive an additional $600 in unemployment benefits on top of what the state of Texas pays per week. Qualifying recipients include those who lost their jobs because of COVID-19-related closures, among other scenarios.

The topic of changing former Hutto city employees' status from laid off to furloughed was initially floated by council on March 26 before being added to the March 30 agenda.

Furloughed employees are those who, in times of economic hardship, are required to work fewer hours per week or take temporary, unpaid time off. Layoffs, meanwhile, are temporary separations from an entity’s payroll that can become permanent or lead to staff recall once the organization is in better financial condition.

“That's one of the programs that I really want to investigate and look into and say, 'Hey, how do we qualify for this? What do we need to do to make this happen?'” Rose said. “And so we can take these employees, and we can change them to a furlough status.”

The decision for the layoffs did not come from City Council, with several council members confirming last week that they had been informed following city action having been taken. Rose said that while it is within a city manager’s rights and job description to hire and fire employees, he would have preferred the concern was brought to council first for discussion and a potential change of course.

Given that the economic stimulus package was just approved last week, Rose said it could take some time before the city has a clear understanding on whether it qualifies for the program and how it could assist its laid-off employees.

Rose added that due to federal labor laws, the laid-off employees already have received their final paychecks and were paid off on benefits accrued. He said one issue that would need to be reconfigured is how to revisit time-off opportunities if the former employees are transitioned to furloughed status and eventually brought back to full-time employment.

While Rose said there might not be enough clear direction to enact the program at the March 30 meeting, he said it is an important step for council to take to remedy the situation and work toward bringing city jobs back to its employees.

“It could end up being a long ride just on paperwork to make everything happen, but I'm more than willing to do that for these people,” Rose said. “We've got an amazing team, and I hated to see all of them go because they're all great people and a lot of them have put in a lot of hard work and dedication to the city.”