$50 million seems like a lot of money.
A 2018 online story says just 205 people in the U.S. each earned that much a year in wages.
But in the case of a $50 million hazard pay program launched during the summer by Gov. Tom Wolf as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, the money didn’t go far enough, some Lehigh Valley employers say.
Ultimately, 639 employers were awarded the $50 million, supporting a $3-an-hour increase in pay for 41,587 full-time equivalent employees across seven eligible industries, the state announced in August.
In the Lehigh Valley, 26 employers out of 653 applicants received $2.6 million in grants. Statewide, there were more than 10,000 applicants seeking $900 million, with the requests coming during a two-week application period.
The “extremely competitive” program, backed by federal dollars, prioritized lowest-paying, highest-risk and most public-facing jobs, state officials said. Those workers, who make less than $20 an hour, received the pay boost in their paychecks from August through October.
The money went to seven sectors, including health care, which received by far the largest amount, $31.75 million, or 63.5%.
Still, the process left out many other employers, including operators of Lehigh Valley ambulance services and pharmacies.
The leader of Palmer Township’s Suburban Rescue Squad was frustrated over why they were not chosen and questioning the first-round selection process.
“I feel bad for kids who work in grocery stores. I get that, said Jeff Young, Suburban’s executive director. “It’s hazardous [work] too.”
Young said Suburban’s emergency personnel has dealt with approximately 1,3000 calls since March in which patients were either positive or presumed positive for COVID-19.
“And to get overlooked [for hazard pay] really bugged me,” said Young, who is also a Palmer supervisor.
Young and Bob Mateff, interim CEO at Cetronia Ambulance Corps in South Whitehall Township used words such as “unacceptable” and “unfathomable” in their reaction to the funding.
“We were not told we were ineligible,” Mateff said. “We were just denied funding and never got an explanation.”
Casey Smith, a spokesperson, with the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said EMS agencies such as Cetronia and Suburban remain eligible for federal coronavirus emergency money through their counties.
“The demand for the COVID-19 Hazard Pay program indicates the need for additional funding to support these critical frontline workers, who selflessly helped their fellow Pennsylvanians through the toughest times,” she said.
‘It doesn’t add up’
Another employer, which the state from the program’s outset did not deem eligible for the grant, was pharmacies. That also upset Vincent A. Hartzell, president and pharmacy manager of Catasauqua’s Hartzell’s Pharmacy.
“We knew going in we might not get it because we weren’t listed as a specific type of business,” Hartzell said. “But we felt if supermarkets and convenience stores were included, why wouldn’t you include pharmacies, especially pharmacies that stayed open?”
Hartzell said his technicians, clerks and delivery personnel have spent as much face time with customers as workers in eligible occupations. Their effort, he said, also put them at risk of contracting COVID.
“I thought it was a slap in the face,” Hartzell said. “It doesn’t all add up.”
Two state senators, including state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton-Lehigh, sent a letter to Wolf early in the funding program asking him to revise the hazard pay program to include pharmacies as eligible businesses.
Smith said pharmacies fall in with health and personal care stores under the North American Industry Classification System, a standard used by federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments for the purpose of collecting, analyzing, and publishing data related to the U.S. business economy. That separates pharmacies from retail food merchants and health care providers, which were eligible for the hazard pay, she said.
Biggest recipient, big donor
Smith said the hazard pay guidelines covered the following categories: healthcare, food manufacturing, food retail, social assistance, janitorial services, transportation, and security.
Additional factors were considered in deciding on the grants, including dollar amounts requested within each industry, which was then prorated. Grant reviewers also took into account workers’ “risk level,” according to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration information; wages of industries and occupation; and availability of other federal funding relief.
Health care received the majority of the funding, $31.75 million or 63.5%, the state said. And within that category, a training and education fund run by United Home Care Workers East received more than 10% of the entire fund, or $6.4 million, for 7,000 home-care workers across the state.
United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, is a partnership of two labor groups, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Service Employees International Union. AFSCME and SEIU have been two of Wolf’s largest campaign donors over the years, with more than $4 million since 2013, according to the Commonwealth Foundation.
“That millions in hazard pay went to a union front group shows that Gov. Wolf is prioritizing the needs of his largest political donors,” said Nathan Benefield, the foundation’s vice president and chief operating officer.
Commonwealth Foundation, which bills itself as a “free-market think tank,” and others have criticized Wolf’s handling of the state’s economic response to the pandemic.
Smith said the grant and campaign donations are “unrelated” and the money is a pass-through from the state to the workers.
“The reason it got a large amount is SEIU was applying on behalf of privately employed individuals, who did not have an employer who could apply on their behalf,” she said.
When contacted, a representative for the unions did not provide a comment.
Wolf to lawmakers: Vote more hazard pay
Other employers and at least one worker anticipating receiving the grant declined to comment on the record, citing concerns over reprisal. The anonymous worker said her business owner told employees they were eligible for the hazard pay and would receive it, but as of mid-October, she said, no money had come in her paycheck.
Meanwhile, Wolf has outlined how he thinks the state should spend much of the $1.3 billion remaining in federal coronavirus relief funds, including earmarking $225 million more toward hazard pay, which he estimates would help more than 200,000 front-line workers responding to the pandemic.
Leaders of the Republican majorities in both chambers have taken Wolf to task Wolf during the pandemic for what they consider a governing approach that has not given them sufficient input. Wolf’s agenda is highly unlikely to be enacted in full, or without changes, according to a recent Associated Press story.
Smith said lawmakers must approve Wolf’s additional $225 million request, she said, as they did with the $50 million, first-round hazard pay funding.
The local employers such as Cetronia Ambulance’s Mateff said they would not hesitate to apply again to help workers receive additional pay.
“We’re trying to be big advocates for our associates who are out there every day exposing their families to the coronavirus,” he said.
Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at 610-820-6694 or [email protected].
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