Utah is allowing retired public employees in critical fields to return to work - but there’s a catch

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert makes a few comments about the evolving economic situation associated with COVID-19, in a news conference at the Utah state Capitol, March 20, 2020.

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Retired Salt Lake City police officer Mike Boyd recently applied for a position at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, hoping to take advantage of Utah’s coronavirus outbreak-inspired suspension of a law that restricts retiring public employees from immediately returning to a government job.

Summit County has been one of the hardest hit, with confirmed coronavirus infections at a far greater rate than elsewhere in the state.

But he discovered that the suspension — implemented by executive order of Gov. Gary Herbert — has a catch. The Utah Retirement Systems says that under federal requirements the retiree has to be at least 50 years old, if he or she retired from a public safety or firefighter job, to continue collecting a pension check.

“Now the heartburn I have with this is if you pay attention to the facts of this coronavirus ... [people] 50 years and older are very susceptible to it,” Boyd told The Tribune in an interview. I honestly can’t think of many that have retired out of the system that are over 50 that would even think of coming back.”

“Ultimately, the fact is it now reduces the possibility of a larger pool of those URS employees wanting to go back,” said Boyd.

He also raised concerns of understaffing among law enforcement amid COVID-19. “Talking with my buddies … it’s definitely affecting them," he said. "They go on one call where somebody has the symptoms and now they’re quarantined for two weeks at minimum.”

However Salt Lake Police Detective Greg Wilking said coronavirus has not significantly affected staffing. Wilking said a few officers have come in contact with people who may have COVID-19 and self-quarantined but have since returned to the force. None of the SLPD officers have tested positive, he said.

The governor’s order temporarily suspends certain provisions of the Utah Postretirement Reemployment Restrictions Act, which requires Utah Retirement Systems employees to wait a year before returning to work. The law was implemented to stop public employees, particularly law enforcement, from “double dipping” — retiring and then returning to their old agency soon after so they could collect a government paycheck and retirement simultaneously.

Herbert’s order was intended to make sure that state and local government agencies have enough staff to address the impacts of COVID-19, and that health care facilities have enough employees to treat COVID-19 patients.

Boyd’s one-year post retirement mandatory break in service ends on June 1, but under the the governor’s executive order, he figured he could go back to work right away — until he discovered the age restriction.

He said a few agencies need police officers right now and have reached out, but he doesn’t want to risk his monthly retirement check.

Because the age restriction isn’t in the governor’s executive order, Boyd assumed this was a URS provision. But agency spokesman Brian Holland said the age requirement reflects federal law.

“It’s just IRS guidelines," he said. “It’s based on federal guidelines we have to follow.... That’s not a barrier that we’ve added.”

Holland said so far only one retiree has been reemployed under the terms of the executive order.

While few agencies have taken advantage of the suspension, several said they are happy to have it as an option.

The Utah Department of Corrections appreciates the order "that can allow us to tap into retired certified staff,” said Kaitlin Felsted, the agency’s communications director.

“Although the Department has developed a list of certified staff that have retired within the past 18 months, we are fortunate at this time to not need to draw from this list. However, we are prepared to do so should circumstances develop that requires the assistance.”

Sgt. Melody Gray with the Unified Police Department also said the suspension will be helpful if it becomes necessary. However, Gray sees an obstacle because retired officers hired during a state of emergency would have to be let go afterward to comply with the Postretirement Reemployment Restrictions Act.

The UPD doesn’t have any officers that are sick, although four officers are in isolation for potential exposure, Gray said.

Health care facilities in the state say the order will help them avoid understaffing. Spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said University of Utah Health isn’t bringing back any retired workers at the moment but it is a part of their pandemic plan.

The Utah Hospital Association’s rural hospital improvement director, Greg Rosenvall, said the suspension is crucial to hospitals in less populated parts of the state, particularly Beaver Valley Hospital and Gunnison Valley Hospital.

If a large number of caregivers in rural areas are exposed to COVID-19 and have to leave work, “it doesn’t take very many health care workers in these rural facilities before they can’t even staff the hospital,” said Rosenvall.

“So to have the ability to go outside and bring in some experienced help, people who have worked there, know their specialty and can come in and help in the event its needed would be critical if it comes to that.”