From left: Sen. Michael Sirotkin, Sen. Tim Ashe and Sen. Chris Pearson
A trio of state senators on Thursday urged some of the largest businesses in Vermont to help their employees obtain cash payments for working during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The state's Frontline Employees Hazard Pay Grant Program provides up to $2,000 to those who worked in certain fields during a two-month period from March to May and earned less than $25 an hour. In order for employees to qualify for the program, however, employers must apply and identify them.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday afternoon outside a CVS Pharmacy in downtown Burlington, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) criticized businesses that had yet to do so. "There have been some employers who have not stepped up," he said.
Ashe, who was joined by Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) and Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), called out eight businesses in particular that he said had not yet applied. Thousands of Vermonters could miss out on payments, Ashe said, "because someone somewhere in a far-off office is unwilling to take literally a few minutes of administrative time to verify which employees are eligible."
But according to Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, at least a couple of those businesses have made clear to the state that they intend to apply. Walmart, which said last week that it would not take part in the program, has since reversed course, Pieciak said. Costco has also said it would apply, he said.
According to Pieciak, it remains unclear whether six others intend to follow suit: CVS, Home Depot, Target, Dollar General, Dollar Tree and ALDI grocery stores.
In addition to those named by the senators, Lowe's has indicated it would take part in the program, Pieciak said. And Shaw's announced this week that it would do so, too.
Though the deadline to apply is midnight Friday, Pieciak said he was considering extending it to next Wednesday if those employers needed more time to fill out the paperwork. He said he was hesitant to extend it further because he wants to ensure that the state can process payments in time to meet a federal deadline to spend coronavirus aid.
Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, said she expected more businesses to come onboard before the deadline passes.
"I've been working closely with [the Department of Financial Regulation] and several retailers to make sure that they're aware of the opportunity, that they understand the process and making sure they know that tomorrow is the deadline," she said Thursday afternoon. "We are encouraged by the number of retailers and grocers across the state that have applied."
In total, the state has allocated $58.5 million for the program. A first tranche of funding, worth $28 million, was distributed over the summer mostly to health care and human service workers. Lawmakers later appropriated another $22.5 million and extended eligibility to those who work for retailers, grocery stores, pharmacies and certain other businesses. Last week, the Joint Fiscal Committee topped it off with another $8 million to cover the remaining businesses expected to apply.
According to Pieciak, about $4 million remains. Sirotkin, who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, said that if the money ran out, lawmakers would come up with more.
Pieciak said that 12,500 employees were awarded grants during the first phase of the program. This time around, 18,000 have applied, though 1,600 have already been deemed ineligible.
Asked Thursday whether it had been a mistake to require employers, not employees, to apply, the senators said that doing so made the process more efficient and provided a way to verify employment.
"It was unimaginable as we were designing it that large companies would just dismiss this as too burdensome or something they weren't interested in delivering to their workers," Pearson said. "So I don't think it was a mistake, but with all the COVID relief we've been trying to figure out how to get things out the door quickly."
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.