Walmart says it will not apply for Vermont state hazard pay grants for its frontline workers, citing employee bonuses it gave instead earlier this year.
In a statement to Seven Days, Walmart said it believes Vermont's program is meant for small and medium employers "who might be unable to pay a similar bonus.
"We hope those funds can be more appropriately used by those employers," the statement said.
A Vermont employee unhappy with the situation alerted a group of state lawmakers, who issued a press release Thursday slamming the big box store for its decision. The five senators, including Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D-P/Chittenden), called Walmart's refusal to apply for the program "cruel" and "unthinkable."
"These are the most loyal employees. They were there at the worst imaginable time at work," Ashe said. "On behalf of those workers, we're desperate for them that Walmart change course."
Also signing the letter were Sens. Cheryl Hooker (D/P-Rutland), Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) and Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden).
Vermont launched the first round of its hazard pay program in August, offering up to $2,000 to private sector health care and eldercare workers who worked and made less than $25 an hour between March and May. The state expanded the program last month to cover employees in grocery stores, pharmacies, child care centers and other categories.
About 30,000 Vermonters are eligible for the program, which is funded by Vermont's $1.25 billion federal CARES Act allotment. Employers have until November 13 to apply on their workers' behalf; by statute, employees can't apply for themselves.
Pearson said lawmakers thought that would be a more efficient way to get the money to companies' lowest-paid, highest-risk workers.
"We were assuming that most employers would be more than happy to help their people get a little boost," he said. "We never conceived that an employer would look at the program, determine that their folks were eligible and then just say, 'No, sorry, we're not going to bother' ... It's outrageous."
Sirotkin agreed, saying "it's not a big lift" for Walmart to fill out the grant application. "They're just not willing to do that," he said.
Vermont Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak, whose office is administering the grants, said his staff have urged Walmart to apply. He said the company seems to misunderstand that the money goes directly to its employees and not to the corporation itself. Ashe said a Walmart lobbyist he spoke to had the same misconception.
When Seven Days asked Walmart about the possible misunderstanding, a company representative ignored the question and instead emailed details of its own employee cash bonus program, which gave out more than $1 billion to its workers nationwide between April and August. Walmart, the country's largest employer, has six stores in Vermont that employ more than 1,000 workers, according to the senators' press release.
Pieciak said the state had contacted a handful of other large employers that had not yet applied for the program, including Shaw's, which has 19 grocery stores in Vermont. He said his staff was scheduled to meet with Shaw's representatives later Friday. Shaw's corporate office did not immediately return Seven Days' interview requests.
Congress has failed to pass any federal hazard pay legislation for the country's estimated 50 million frontline workers, leaving states to fill the gap with coronavirus relief funds. Vermont is one of only three states that offered hazard pay to essential workers outside of the health care field, the Brookings Institution reported late last month.
More than 5,000 eligible companies applied for Pennsylvania's $50 million hazard pay program but only 639 received a grant, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in August. Walmart did not receive a grant, but it was not immediately clear if the company had applied.
In Louisiana, essential workers could apply for that state's hazard pay program directly, without involving their employers. About 200,000 people are eligible for the program, which closed applications on October 31.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.