Premiums paid to essential workers vary widely by state

For putting their health on the line during the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri prison guards were given an additional $ 250 by paycheck. Teachers in Georgia received bonuses of $ 1,000. And in Vermont, nurses, janitors, shopkeepers and many others have received up to $ 2,000.

In the past year, about a third of U.S. states have used federal COVID-19 relief assistance to reward workers deemed essential who duly report to work during the pandemic. But who qualified for those bonuses – and how much they received – varied widely, according to an Associated Press review. While some were paid thousands of dollars, others with similar jobs elsewhere received nothing.

As the company reopens, the momentum to provide a pandemic risk premium appears to be waning – even as the federal government has expanded the ability of state and local governments to provide retroactive pay as part of a program to $ 350 billion aid adopted by President Joe Biden in March.

So far, only a few states have committed to paying workers extra with US bailout money.

Florida offers $ 1,000 bonuses to teachers and first responders. Minnesota plans to distribute $ 250 million in bonuses to essential workers, although a special panel will not determine who qualifies until later this year.

Hawaii Governor David Ige last week vetoed a budget provision to pay teachers $ 2,200 in bonuses. The Democratic governor said lawmakers lack the power to tell the state’s education ministry how to use federal money.

Some states remain reluctant to adopt bonus programs.

An Oregon proposal to use federal pandemic aid to provide bonuses of up to $ 2,000 to essential workers was not included in the budget that went into effect on July 1, despite a union lobbying campaign that included thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls to lawmakers. The proposal would have covered workers in many areas, including education, healthcare, public safety and transport.

“I don’t think anyone objected to it,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503. But “no one made it a priority.”

While states have until the end of 2024 to decide how to spend the latest federal aid, some advocates fear that the realistic window for granting bonuses to workers may close as more sectors of the economy grow. company reopen.

“Unfortunately, the longer you delay doing it, the less it will be on the minds of voters and these decision-makers,” said Molly Kinder, a member of the nonprofit Brookings Institution that follows pay policies for risk of loss. pandemic.

Paying the premium is one of the many options available to states under Biden’s aid program. States can also use the money to fill budget holes, help businesses and households hit by the economic downturn, fund some infrastructure projects, and pay for public health programs like COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. .

Illinois lawmakers used federal money for dozens of initiatives in the budget that went into effect July 1 – from $ 75,000 for a high school violence prevention and mentorship program to 200 million dollars for hospitals. There was no provision for additional compensation in the event of a pandemic, although Illinois had paid it in the past.

The administration of Democratic Governor JB Pritzker last year granted a temporary 12% pay rise to nearly 24,000 state employees whose jobs put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. Most of the $ 62 million cost was covered by federal funds.

“Morally, it was a critical thing for my colleagues and I,” said Crosby Smith, a caregiver at a state home for the disabled near Chicago. “Because at that point when COVID hit our facility… we kind of felt abandoned. “

Smith and his fiancee were among many staff and residents at the Ludeman Developmental Center who contracted the virus last year. He said the risk money helps pay off credit cards and avoid new debt when shopping for clothes and shoes.

Most of the states that provided a COVID-19 risk premium used money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed by then-President Donald Trump in March 2020. While some states have limited the payments to some public employees, others distributed money to a large audience. range of private sector workers known to hold important jobs.

Louisiana spent more than $ 38 million last year paying $ 250 to more than 152,000 “frontline workers” earning less than $ 50,000 a year, state data provided to the AP shows. . Health care workers received the largest share of the money, followed by grocery store and law enforcement workers. But the payments also went to gas station workers, daycares, janitors, bus drivers and others.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, used $ 50 million in federal aid for grants to more than 600 businesses to provide a temporary $ 3 hourly boost to employees earning less than $ 20 per hour. ‘hour. Healthcare providers got most of the money, followed by the food industry, according to state data provided to the AP. But millions of dollars also went to cleaning companies and private security companies.

In contrast, South Dakota limited the risk premium to state workers and only during the time they were potentially exposed to COVID-19. A therapy assistant received an additional 40 cents, a pharmacist received $ 1.80 and a maintenance supervisor received $ 4, according to state data provided to the AP.

In some states, the cost of risk premium programs has far exceeded initial expectations.

Missouri originally planned about $ 24 million in federal aid to provide an additional $ 250 by two-week paycheck to state employees working in close contact institutions such as prisons, mental health facilities and retirement homes for veterans. The allowance applied to anyone without unplanned absences from a facility with at least one case of COVID-19 – ultimately covering many more people for a much longer period of time than policymakers anticipated at the start of the pandemic.

Missouri ended up paying more than $ 73 million in risk allowances to more than 18,000 employees, resulting in an additional $ 24 million in ancillary costs such as retirement payments and federal taxes, according to data from the Status provided to the AP. The payments ended on June 30 and the state does not intend to resume them immediately.

“Without a doubt, it was worth it,” said Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican. “Some people have done an incredible job in this state to stay the course and stay in the job.”

Vermont’s risk premium program has also inflated its costs. Last August, the state allocated $ 28 million in federal funds to pay up to $ 2,000 to healthcare workers who worked during the early stages of the pandemic. He then added $ 22 million to expand the program to retailers and grocers, child care providers, janitors, garbage collectors and others. When those funds ran out, the state added an additional $ 10 million to cover all eligible applicants.

Employees in the retail and grocery sectors of Vermont received nearly a third of the total money, almost matching the amount that went to the healthcare fields, according to data provided to the AP.

Demand was high, in part because Republican Gov. Phil Scott encouraged hesitant large companies, such as Walmart, to apply on behalf of their employees, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner for the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation. He said consumer spending increased as the payments were distributed.

“The main objective was to say thank you to these frontline workers, but it also had the good advantage of injecting money into the economy,” Pieciak said.

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