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Roundup: County Furloughs; COVID and the Courts

Knox County

Jacobs orders county workers furloughed

An as-yet unknown number of Knox County employees will be furloughed beginning May 9 as the county grapples with an anticipated plunge in tax revenues.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs made the announcement Friday afternoon. A press release said the furlough plan will affect every fee office and every office within the executive branch.

Calling it the hardest decision he’s had to make since taking office in August 2018, Jacobs said, “We held off as long as we could and do not take this lightly because we know it affects real people’s livelihoods. We expect these furloughs to be temporary and hope that everyone will be back to work very soon. Though this certainly isn’t something we wanted to do, we need to watch our spending during these uncertain times.”

The affected employees will be paid through May 8. They will continue to receive health coverage and other benefits from Knox County, in addition to up to $275 per week from the State of Tennessee and $600 from federal COVID relief money, according to the press release.

Tennessee labor union takes issue with recovery panel’s membership

The Tennessee chapter of the AFL-CIO criticized what it considers a major oversight in the makeup of Governor Bill Lee’s economic reboot task force: Not a single member represents organized labor.

Fifteen people described as “industry representatives” were selected for the recovery group announced Thursday, along with fifteen members from state government. The industry members represent chambers of commerce, banks, retail and tourism, non-profits and small businesses.

“Governor Lee’s idea of an Economic Recovery Group is not only incomplete but also an inaccurate snapshot of Tennessee’s economy,” Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus said. “It is both critical and frankly non-negotiable that labor have a seat at the table during these conversations.”

The chapter says it represents more than 60,000 people across the state.

State Supreme Court delays execution

Safety concerns about COVID-19 have forced the postponement of Tennessee’s next scheduled execution.

Oscar Smith was scheduled to die June 4 for his conviction in a 1989 murder case. But Friday, the state’s highest court ordered Smith’s execution moved to February 2021.

In a motion filed last month, Smith’s defense team argued their work in compiling a clemency case was hampered by stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions associated with COVID-19. They asked for a delay to keep working on the case. In a unanimous ruling, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s five justices granted the request.

"It makes no sense to bring execution witnesses and other people into the prison and possibly expose them to COVID-19 infection or introduce the virus into the prison population," federal public defender Kelley Henry said in a statement. “Mr. Smith, who has always maintained his innocence, needs to meet with his attorneys to prepare a clemency petition, and investigators need to interview people to get information for the clemency petition. None of that face-to-face work can happen at this time without risking public health.”

Federal judge deals blow to Lee order that blocked abortions

The Tennessee Attorney General’s office says it is appealing a federal judge’s decision that cleared abortions from a list of unnecessary medical procedures.

Abortion was included in Governor Bill Lee’s April 8 executive order banning non-essential medical procedures, such as dental work and other non-emergency needs. The state argues abortions would use up personal protective equipment medical professionals need as they treat COVID-19 cases. The order is set to expire April 30.

Pro choice groups, including Planned Parenthood, filed suit over the order last week. Federal Judge Bernard Friedman said the state failed to prove abortions would use up substantial amounts of protective gear.