MISSOULA — Calling it a rare exception, the Missoula Economic Partnership on Thursday sought and received approval to use a state grant to reimburse a local company for several jobs created outside Missoula County.
The Big Sky Trust Fund job creation program is managed locally by MEP and administered by Missoula County. The state funds are intended to reimburse local businesses for costs associated with creating new jobs in county in which they’re based.
Nicole Rush, a grants administrator with MEP, said the restriction that all jobs must be located in Missoula County was one of the program’s largest limitations.
“It’s one of the big limitations of this program,” Rush said. “It doesn’t allow for those workers outside the specific county were the grant has been awarded.”
For a job to qualify for state reimbursement, it must pay an average weekly wage that meets or exceeds either 170% of the state’s hourly minimum wage, or the current average weekly wage of the county in which the worker is employed.
For Missoula County, it’s either $20.35 an hour or $814 a week. The job creation grants in question were awarded to Cognizant-ATG in both 2019 and 2020 and apply to roughly 4 jobs, according to Rush.
“Under their current grant, they have four employees they’d like to count that are working outside Missoula County,” she said. “Some were recalled from Barcelona during COVID and are now back in Montana, but they happen to be living outside Missoula County.”
MEP and Missoula County have been successful in seeking job creation grants from the state in recent years. Over the past year, MEP secured $937,000 in funding to support the creation of 130 new jobs, including 34 at Cognizant-ATG and 31 at Consumer Direct Care Network.
Cognizant is headquartered in Missoula and has logged rapid growth in recent years. While most of its employees are based in Missoula, some are located in other cities. Like most employers, the company has made adjustments during the pandemic and has employees working remotely.
Efforts to reach Cognizant regarding its approach to remote working haven’t been successful.
“For tech companies, the physical location of their workers, especially during COVID, isn’t as important as needing to get work done, and sometimes that work is done remotely,” Rush said.
Missoula County commissioners signed off on the request on Thursday, but raised concern that state job creation grants could be awarded to businesses that base in Missoula but employee workers in other counties.
“What we want to avoid is a scenario in which virtually all of the employees are somewhere other than Missoula County and we’re being asked to approve a contract,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.
Rush said MEP has capped its role in the program so that no more than 25% of new jobs can be reimbursed for remote workers outside the county. She said Cognizant has a strong track record in Missoula and has demonstrated success with the job creation program.
“This sort of scenario would be case by case,” she said. “This isn’t something we’d necessarily want to apply to all of our job creation grants. It’s not something we’d ask for for every grantee, nor would it be needed for every grantee.”