Governor Tom Wolf’s administration is aiming to help front-line workers through the COVID-19 pandemic with $50 million in CARES Act grants that are slotted for supplementary hazard pay.
Just last week, Wolf announced the funds, derived from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which will be issued as reimbursement-based grants for eligible employers in the commonwealth. The program, administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development, will allow businesses to apply for up to $3 million in funding.
"In the fight against COVID-19, our front-line workers have put themselves at risk every day in order to continue to provide life-sustaining services to their fellow Pennsylvanians, and this funding will increase their pay in recognition of those sacrifices," Wolf said in a statement. "These grants will help businesses retain employees, ensure that Pennsylvanians keep working and avoid disruption of critical goods and services."
Businesses, healthcare non-profits, public transportation agencies and Certified Economic Development Organizations are welcome to apply to the program.
Eligible Pennsylvania-based businesses include healthcare and social assistance organizations, ambulatory health care services, hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, transit and ground passenger transportation services, food manufacturers, food retail facilities, security services for eligible industries and other commercial industries that were not shut down during Wolf’s business closure order, and janitorial services to buildings and dwellings.
Workers in these occupations have faced a quandary throughout the pandemic, having to decide whether to go to work at typically low-paying positions while putting their health at risk. Individuals in public-facing positions, including those in retail, customer service and health care, that were deemed "essential" have struggled with the issue, at times debating if the risk of employment is worth the pay, even during times of record job-losses and layoffs.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate for June 2020 sat at 13%, down from April’s peak of 16.1%, but far from January and February’s low point of 4.7%.
With the extra $600 in federal unemployment benefits set to expire next week, those who are currently working on the front lines are left in the unenviable situation where they essentially must work, but in a far more dangerous situation than usual.
Offering the extra hazard pay to workers who are routinely subjected to potential COVID-19 exposure could make the risk of employment somewhat more worthwhile.
Grant funding may be used for hazard pay for direct, full-time and part-time employees earning under $20 per hour, excluding fringe benefits and overtime between Aug. 16 and Oct. 24, 2020. Applicants are able to apply for up to $1,200 per eligible full-time employee, and employers may apply for a grant to provide hazard pay for us to 500 eligible full-time employees per location.
Eligible applicants may apply for grants online using the DCED Electronic Single Application for Assistance up until July 31, 2020.
Lehigh Valley Health Network public information officer Brian Downs said that he is not certain as to whether the health care group will pursue grants with the program, but noted that "we’re still learning more about it and working through the details with the state."
"Front-line workers in many workplaces have been praised during this pandemic, including thousands of transit workers who drive, clean and maintain our buses and trains," state Rep. Mike Carrol (D- Lackawanna, Luzerne), Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said. "They’ve earned more than just good words. They deserve better pay for the risky work that they are continuing to do every day."
Rep. Maureen Madden (D-115) said that while prospective hazard pay bumps could prove helpful for employees, larger businesses and corporations should be funding such initiatives themselves. The problem is, they don’t seem to show any interest in doing so.
"Walmart could absolutely step up and get these people hazard pay with no problem if they wanted to," Madden said. "They could certainly afford it. All these big corporations could do it, McDonald’s could do it. But they’re not stepping up, and they’re not doing it."
If larger businesses would handle pay increases internally, Madden said, more government funding could be set aside exclusively to help smaller businesses, many of which have suffered closures and revenue loss throughout the pandemic.
"Home Depot, Lowe’s, they made money hand over fist (during the pandemic)," Madden said. "The corporations, the large businesses, ought to be stepping up and doing hazard pay on their own. Governor Wolf’s $50 million, I think, personally, should only be extended to small businesses."
As the pandemic stretches on, there will likely be more openings to explore the impact and ramifications of government-funded hazard pay, along with further opportunities to fine-tune the initiatives so that they can truly help those in need. For now, though, at least some front-liners will have a chance to earn a bit more to compensate for their hard work during a tumultuous time.