The Vermont Senate approved hazard pay grants for essential workers Friday.
Essential workers making less than $25 per hour during the coronavirus pandemic would qualify for hazard pay of up to $1,000 per month under a bill approved Friday by the Vermont Senate.
The $60 million grant program aims to reward the estimated 33,500 nursing home workers, grocery store clerks and retail employees who put themselves at risk by remaining on the job during the crisis.
Workers who put in at least 108 hours during one of the two periods covered by the grants — March 13 to April 14 or April 14 to May 15 — would qualify for the full $1,000 each period. Those who worked at least 34 hours would receive $600 per month under the bill.
To receive the benefits, employers would have to affirm that their workers qualify and worked the hours in question. Though not without dissent during its development, the final bill won unanimous approval by the Senate.
Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) said she was disappointed that school food service workers and farm workers were not included in the bill, but she supported it strongly anyway.
She noted that the majority of workers covered by the bill are women. She also noted that the Senate was passing the bill on May 1, which is International Workers’ Day. Several labor unions and community organizations scheduled car caravan rallies around the state to mark the event.
“We’re really showing our support for the essential workers throughout Vermont on a very important day,” Hardy said.
Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) explained during a previous Senate session that the bill focused on workers who had direct contact with the public or clients during the state of emergency. Workers cooking meals for children in a kitchen would not qualify, she said.
Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) expressed concern during a previous Senate session that the bill would effectively reward workers at large national retailers, some of which have done robust business as people stocked up on supplies.
“It’s just upsetting when we’re subsidizing large retailers in this country right now with millions of dollars, and they’ve had the best quarter that they’ve ever had,” said Mazza, the longtime owner of a small grocery in Colchester.
Kitchel said she understood the concern but stressed the money would go to workers, not corporations. She added that the bill contained protections to ensure companies couldn't rescind previous pay increases they’ve made to support frontline workers.
The bill says some of the $1.25 billion the state received from the federal CARES Act would cover the program cost.
The payments cover just the two specific months outlined and are subject to income tax withholding.
One of the key motivations behind the bill is to address the inequity created by an increase in unemployment benefits. People laid off due to the pandemic are eligible for an additional $600 per week under the federal CARES Act.
That could make it difficult for some employers such as restaurants to hire back enough workers to allow them to reopen, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said.
“Rewarding some of these people who are actually working rather than staying on unemployment is really the key piece of this bill,” Sears said.
The House must still consider and approve the bill, and it would ultimately need Gov. Phil Scott's signature.
At a press conference Friday, Scott was noncommittal about whether he'd sign or veto the legislation and seemed skeptical that the federal stimulus funds would cover the costs.
"I understand it's a noble effort, and I understand what they're trying to do," the governor said. "My question always goes back to: Where does the money come from? We don't believe that the CARES Act can be used for this purpose."
If those funds can't be used to pay for the program, Scott noted that the state's budget is already stretched thin, "so again, it comes down to money."