HARTFORD, Connecticut (AP) – When the US government allowed so-called “heroic pay” to frontline workers as a possible use of pandemic relief money, it offered qualifying jobs from agricultural workers and caregivers children 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 so, by default, you say it’s important, not unimportant, ”said Jason Levesque, Republican Mayor of Auburn, Maine, where officials have yet to decide who gets hazard pay from America’s City Bailout Plan. …
A year and a half after the outbreak 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 in and day out. It scared us. It really is. “
An interim federal regulation, published six months ago, allows state and local COVID-19 recovery funds to be spent on bonus payments to key workers 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 those 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 regulations urge 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 eligible low incomes.
As of July, about a third of U.S. states have used federal COVID-19 aid 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 set aside 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 distribute the money more widely, providing roughly $ 375 to roughly 670,000 basic 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 with union leaders continue, Connecticut’s AFL-CIO has stepped up pressure on Democratic Governor Ned Lamont, who is set to be re-elected in 2022, to provide $ 1 per hour in hazard pay to all key government and 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 this is the least he can do for these workers, ”said Ed Hawthorne, AFL-CIO Connecticut president. “These workers came to Connecticut. It’s time for the governor to report to 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 give credit to the workers who continued to work every day because they were forced to and they had no choice. And these are all kinds of people, from people working in public health facilities to people who had to plow our roads in harsh weather and work from home, ”he said. “The next part is that you have to decide who all these people were. And there is a verification process for that. “
In some states, such as California, cities are in the process of determining how to equitably allocate some of their federal funds to help key 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 among the mainstream workers. Money must be available for many workers, ”Torres said.
David Dobbs and fellow firefighters in Bridgeport, Connecticut are unhappy that their city has yet to provide them with a share of the $ 110 million received in federal pandemic funds. 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 cheated by the city right now, when they don’t do business with us, when they get caught in this unexpected incident, ”said Dobbs, president of the Bridgeport Firefighters Association, which has waived pay increases 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.”
Associated Press author Steve Karnovski of Minneapolis contributed to this report.