Who is the hero? Some states and cities still discuss hazard pay

When the US government authorized so-called “heroic pay” for frontline workers as a possible use of pandemic relief money, it offered qualifications for jobs from agricultural workers and childcare personnel to janitors and truck drivers.

State and local governments have struggled to determine which of the many workers who weathered the raging coronavirus pandemic before vaccines became available should qualify: just government employees or private employees too? Should it be shared with a small group of key workers such as nurses, or distributed to others, including grocery store employees?

“This is a bad position for us because your local government is trying to pick winners and losers, if you like, or recipients and non-recipients. And therefore, by default, you say what is important, not unimportant, ”said Jason Levesque. , Republican Mayor of Auburn, Maine, where officials have yet to decide who will receive hazard pay from America’s City Bailout Plan.

A year and a half after the start of the pandemic, such decisions have political repercussions for some leaders, as unions lobby for empowerment and workers who are ultimately left behind feel embittered.

“It sounds like it’s about money, but it’s a token of gratitude,” said Ginny Ligi, a correctional officer who contracted COVID-19 last year in Connecticut, where bonus payments have not yet been cut amid negotiations with unions. “It’s so hard to put into words the real feeling of what it was like to go to this place every day, day after day. It hurt us. It really was. “

An interim federal regulation, published six months ago, allows state and local COVID-19 recovery funds to be spent on a basic worker bonus of up to $ 13 an hour in addition to their regular wages. The amount cannot exceed $ 25,000 per employee.

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

The regulation encourages state and local governments to “prioritize the provision of retrospective payment of premiums where possible, recognizing that many important workers have not yet received additional compensation for work performed over many months” and prioritize workers with low income.

As of July, about a third of US states have used federal COVID-19 assistance to reward workers deemed necessary with bonuses, although qualifications and amounts of aid received varied widely, according to an Associated Press survey.

A list of government allocations for wages and insurance premiums as of November 18, presented by the National Conference of State Legislatures, shows that funds were typically allocated to government officials such as state military personnel and corrections officers.

In Minnesota, lawmakers still have $ 250 million in aid to pay the heroes, but can’t decide how to allocate it. The ad hoc committee was unable to come up with a compromise plan, instead sending two competing recommendations to the full Legislature.

“I think every time we have another week, we just postpone the whole process, and I think the fastest way is to get them to the Legislature,” said Republican Senator Mary Kiffmeier, a committee member, meeting time last month.

Minnesota Senate Republicans want to offer a $ 1,200 tax-free bonus to the roughly 200,000 workers they say are most at risk, such as nurses, long-term care workers, prison staff, and first responders.

But House Democrats want to spread the money wider by providing roughly $ 375 to roughly 670,000 key workers, including low-paid food service and grocery workers, security guards, janitors and others.

Earlier this week, after it was revealed that the political stalemate had eased over another issue, House of Representatives Speaker Melissa Hortman told Minnesota Public Radio that she believed an agreement could be reached on pay for ordinary workers, noting that there was “A pretty natural sweet spot.” between dueling sentences.

Connecticut has yet to pay any of the $ 20 million in federal money allocated by state legislators in June to key government officials and members of the Connecticut National Guard.

As negotiations continue with union leaders, Connecticut’s AFL-CIO has stepped up pressure on Democratic Governor Ned Lamont, who is re-elected for a second term in 2022, to pay $ 1 an hour in hazard wages to all key government workers. and the private sectors that worked during the pandemic before vaccinations became available.

“The governor needs to reassess his priorities and show that these workers, who are putting themselves and their lives at risk, are the top priority. I think that’s really the least he can do for these workers, ”said Ed Hawthorne, AFL President of Connecticut. CIO. “These workers came to Connecticut. It’s time for the governor to come instead of them. “

Max Reiss, a Lamont spokesman, said the union figures were “simply not feasible.”

In the meantime, he said, the administration is in talks with civil servants’ unions, categorizing the work of civil servants during the pandemic and determining whether they could switch to other responsibilities that were more or less risky, which could also affect whether they receive more or less money.

“We want to celebrate the workers who continued to work every day because they had no choice. And these were people working in public health facilities, and people who had to plow our roads in harsh weather and work in person, “he said.” The next step is that you have to decide who all these people were. And for this is a verification process. “

In some states, such as California, cities are in the process of determining how to equitably allocate some of their federal funds to help important private sector workers who may not have received additional pay from their employers.

Rachel Torres, deputy political and civil rights division at the United Food and Trade Union, local 770, said her union is calling on cities to follow the lead of Oxnard and Calabasas, which voted this year to pay wages to grocery and pharmacy workers. by as much as $ 1000.

“It really shouldn’t be a competition between core workers. Money must be available for many workers, ”Torres said.

David Dobbs and fellow firefighters in Bridgeport, Connecticut are upset that their city has yet to provide them with a share of the $ 110 million in federal pandemic funding. Mayor Joe Gamin, a Democrat, said in a statement that he supports the concept of bonus payments, but the matter is still under review to make sure any payments comply 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 don’t do business with us, when they hit this unexpected fortune, ”said Dobbs, president of the Bridgeport Firefighters Association, which has pulled out of a pay increase in the past when the city’s budget was limited. “Imagine lending your friends a decent amount of money and then playing Powerball but not doing anything right.”

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