The ‘hero pays’ for work in pandemic still debated by states and cities

When the US government allowed the self-styled hero to pay for frontline workers as a possible use of the pandemic relief money, he suggested occupations that might be eligible, farm laborers and staff from babysitting to janitors and truck drivers.

State and local governments have scrambled to determine who of the many workers who braved the raging COVID-19 pandemic before vaccines were available should be eligible: only government employees or private sector employees also ? Should it go to a small group of essential workers such as nurses or extend to others including grocery store workers?

“It’s a bad position for us because your local government is trying to pick winners and losers, if you will, or beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. And so by default you say importance versus not important, ”said Jason Levesque, the Republican mayor of Auburn, Maine, where officials have yet to decide who will receive a risk premium from bailout funds. American city.

A year and a half after the start of the pandemic, such decisions have had political implications for some leaders as unions push for expanded eligibility, workers who end up feeling embittered.

“Sounds like it’s about the money, but it’s a token of appreciation,” said Ginny Ligi, a correctional officer who contracted COVID-19 last year in Connecticut, where checks from premium have not yet been reduced amid negotiations with the unions. “It’s so hard to put into words the real feeling of what it was like to walk into this place every day, day in and day out. It marked us. It really is.

Interim federal rules released six months ago allow state and local COVID-19 recovery funds to be spent on bonuses for essential workers up to $ 13 per hour, in addition to their regular salary. The amount cannot exceed $ 25,000 per employee.

The rules also allow for grants to be awarded to third-party employers with eligible workers, who are defined as someone who has had “regular in-person interactions or regular physical handling of items that have also been handled by others. others ”or increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The rules encourage state and local governments to “prioritize the granting of a retrospective bonus wherever possible, recognizing that many essential workers have not yet received additional compensation for work performed during several months ”, while prioritizing eligible low-income workers.

As of July, about a third of U.S. states had used federal COVID-19 relief aid to reward workers deemed essential with bonuses, though who qualified and how much they received vary widely, according to an Associated Press review.

A list of risk allowances and bonuses paid by the state as of Nov. 18, provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures, shows that funds have generally been earmarked for public servants, such as state soldiers and correctional officers.

In Minnesota, lawmakers still have $ 250 million in aid set aside for hero pay, but have struggled with how to distribute it. A special committee was unable to come up with a compromise plan, instead sending two competing recommendations to the entire legislature for consideration.

“I think every time we take another week, we just delay the whole process, and I think the fastest way is to get them to the legislature,” the senator said. State Republican Committee member Mary Kiffmeyer at a meeting last month.

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate want to offer a tax-free bonus of $ 1,200 to about 200,000 workers who they say have taken the most risks, such as nurses, long-term care workers, prison staff and first responders.

But House Democrats want to spread the money more widely, providing roughly $ 375 to about 670,000 essential workers, including low-wage food and grocery workers, security guards, janitors and others.

Earlier this week, after it emerged that a political stalemate was fading over another issue, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman told Minnesota Public Radio that she believed an agreement could be reached on compensation for frontline workers, noting that there was “fairly natural common ground” between the dueling proposals.

Connecticut has yet to pay out any of the $ 20 million federal pandemic money set aside by state lawmakers in June for essential state employees and members of the Connecticut National Guard.

As negotiations continue with union leaders, the Connecticut labor organization AFL-CIO has stepped up pressure on Democratic Governor Ned Lamont, who is due for re-election in 2022, to pay $ 1 an hour in risk premium to all essential elements of the public and private sectors. workers who worked during the pandemic before vaccines became available.

“The governor must reassess his priorities and show that these workers who put themselves and their lives at risk are a top priority. I think it really is the least he can do for these workers, ”said Ed Hawthorne, president of the AFL-CIO of Connecticut. “These workers showed up for Connecticut. It’s time for the governor to show up for them.

Max Reiss, spokesperson for Lamont, said the figures cited by the unions are “simply not achievable”.

In the meantime, he said, the administration is in negotiations with unions of state employees, classifying the work that state employees did during the pandemic and determining whether they were able to pass. to other more or less risky responsibilities, which could also affect whether they receive more or less money.

“We want to recognize workers who continued to work every day because they had to and had no choice. And these range from people working in public health facilities to people who had to plow our roads in severe weather and work in person, ”he said. “The next piece is you have to figure out who all of these people were. And there is a verification process to that.

In some states like California, cities are figuring out how to fairly allocate some of their federal funds to help critical private sector workers who may not have received extra pay from their employers.

Rachel Torres, political and civil rights deputy at the Union of United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 770, said her union urged cities to follow Oxnard and Calabasas’ lead, who voted this year to provide payments to employees of grocery stores and pharmacies. up to $ 1,000.

“It really shouldn’t be a competition between the core staff. There should be money available for a lot of workers, ”Torres said.

David Dobbs and his fellow firefighters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, are upset their city has yet to provide them with a share of the $ 110 million it has received in federal pandemic funds. Mayor Joe Gamin, a Democrat, said in a statement that he supports the concept of the bounty but the matter is still under review to ensure any payment complies with federal rules.

“We have demonstrated our commitment to this partnership. And I think we feel a little bit betrayed by the city right now, when they weren’t dealing with us, when they had this windfall, ”said Dobbs, president of Bridgeport Firefighters Assn., Who waived the increases to salary in the past when the city budget was tight. “Imagine loaning your friends a decent amount of money, then hitting the Powerball and not helping matters. “

Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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About Christopher Easley

Christopher Easley

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