Commerce wants fed tax dollars for staff time spent on COVID-19

November 13, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

The S.C. Department of Commerce doesn’t employ any medical or infectious disease experts, but the agency is seeking $250,000 in federal funds to reimburse itself for staff time spent on coronavirus-related tasks.

The state earlier this year received $1.9 billion in federal “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security” (CARES) funds. Under a state law passed in May, state agencies must provide monthly reports to the governor and General Assembly on federal spending related to the COVID-19 outbreak in South Carolina.

The monthly reports are posted on the state Department of Administration’s website. Commerce’s latest report lists total costs through Oct. 1.

But that report doesn’t give any details of the $250,043 in listed “personnel” costs for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30. The Nerve earlier this month submitted a formal request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for records after the agency didn’t initially respond to written questions.

In written replies to The Nerve last Friday and Monday, Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark said the agency has applied for $250,043.37 in CARES funds to cover wages and salaries of 34 employees – more than a third of its total workforce – for “time spent on COVID related tasks” from March through June 30. The agency, though, hasn’t received any CARES fund reimbursement, she said.

Asked for specifics on which employees performed coronavirus-related tasks and what they did, Clark said staff from “across all divisions have been involved in a variety of COVID related tasks,” including:

  • “Managing the business clarification process and the event exception process”;
  • “Providing support and resources for the business community to navigate the impacts of the pandemic”;
  • “Providing on-site support at the SC Emergency Operations Center”;
  • “Serving as lead agency for one of the accelerateSC Task Force components”;
  • “Developing and implementing a workplace re-entry task force”;
  • “Providing relevant communications related to COVID resources”; and
  • “Responding to COVID related media questions”

“Again this is not an exhaustive list of COVID related tasks,” Clark said.

The 34 employees who have “taken on duties associated with COVID 19 in addition to their normal responsibilities” include “project managers, grant managers, international trade employees, existing industries employees, small business employees, legal employees, human resource employees, administrative employees, recycling team members, emergency management team members, marketing and communications employees, and the administrative assistants supporting these divisions and teams,” Clark said.

As The Nerve revealed in April, a seven-member Commerce committee – empowered by Gov. Henry McMaster – decided which inquiring businesses in the state were “non-essential,” though the panel had no medical or public health experts to provide public-health input.

In August, The Nerve revealed that McMaster had again granted Commerce, though not a public health agency, the power to make health-related decisions by granting exemptions for events that attract more than 250 people.

Besides “personnel” costs, Commerce also listed the following coronavirus-related expenses as of Oct 1: $88,795.58 in “employer contributions,” $99,719.42 in “contractual” expenses, and $104,977.95 for “supplies.”

Clark didn’t respond Thursday to The Nerve’s questions seeking specifics on those spending categories. In her email response last week, she noted although the agency hadn’t received federal reimbursement for staff time, “COVID related tasks have continued” into this fiscal year.

Whether Commerce will receive reimbursement for staff time is unclear. Under U.S. Treasury Department guidelines, state or local governments can’t use CARES funds to cover payroll or benefit expenses in full for employees whose work duties aren’t “substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Another guideline, however, allows state and local governments to “track time spent by employees related to COVID-19 and apply (CARES) fund payments on that basis,” allowing those funds, for example, to cover payroll expenses of “many employees who have a minority of their time dedicated to the public health emergency.”

Commerce isn’t hurting for money. The Nerve, for example, in September revealed that Commerce started this fiscal year on July 1 with a general fund surplus of $103.1 million – more than double its reserves from the previous year and representing more than half of its total current budget.

Bryce Fiedler, a policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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