The sign for the South Thomaston Municipal Building in August 2021. Credit: Courtesy of WGME

Many towns in Maine are using federal relief funds to give premium pay to municipal employees who worked through the pandemic. In South Thomaston, workers at three public-facing businesses got a similar bonus.

Two day care centers, Little Learners Childcare and Sunshine Cove, along with a long-running general store, the ‘Keag Store, received $16,378 in all from the town this month. Across the three businesses, 23 workers got 50 cents for every hour they worked during Maine’s state of emergency, which ran from March 2020 through June of this year.

It makes South Thomaston one of a relatively small number of Maine municipalities using funding from the American Recovery Plan Act to offer premium pay pandemic bonuses to employees of private-sector businesses or nonprofits. Extending the bonuses outside the public sector is being done in recognition that daycare centers and stores that sell food and other goods also fulfilled important public needs during the pandemic.

“We just felt that they should be acknowledged and rewarded,” South Thomaston Select Board Chair John Spear said.

South Thomaston has received about $85,000 of the $170,000 it has been allotted through the American Recovery Plan Act. The town used this first round of federal funding to give premium pay bonuses to its municipal employees, which included fire department and ambulance service members. Town officials got the idea to offer premium pay bonuses to certain private-sector employees directly from the federal spending guidelines, Spear said.

Not many towns in Maine are opting to spend the federal relief funding they’re receiving this way. Neal Goldberg, a Maine Municipal Association legislative analyst, estimates that roughly two dozen towns here have offered bonuses to employees of health care institutions, grocery stores or other public-facing businesses that served a vital role during the pandemic.

Local officials can be hesitant to give money to private sector businesses because they could be on the hook if the ARPA funding is not used properly, Goldberg said. But smaller towns like South Thomaston are more likely to offer bonuses to private businesses, he said.

“These are communities that are under 1,000 or 2,000 residents,” Goldberg said. “A lot of that comes down to the relationship and the trust.”

In South Thomaston, Spear said the businesses receiving the funding were required to provide the town with payroll documentation to ensure the bonuses were passed on to the qualifying employees.

This is not the first time South Thomaston has been an outlier in how it has chosen to spend its ARPA funding. Earlier this year it was likely the first town in Maine to offer an incentive for people to get COVID-19 vaccines. The town offered $200 to anyone who lived in, worked in or frequently visited the town if they received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine between Aug. 4 and Nov. 30. A total of 35 people participated in the program.

“They were ahead of not just towns in Maine, but they were ahead of the nation with that sort of [vaccine incentive] program,” Goldberg said.

With Maine towns and counties still slated to receive a second round of ARPA funding, Goldberg said more municipalities may opt to extend premium pay bonuses to the private sector after more urgent needs have been taken care of with the initial round of funding.

“It’s possible with the second round of funding that we will see much more, [what] I’ll call, community gifting,” Goldberg said.