Gary Canada was baffled that his employer, Tower Health, hadn’t applied for a state grant that would give hazard pay to low-wage essential workers such as himself.

“It ain’t even comin’ out of your pocket,” the Chestnut Hill Hospital nursing assistant said, directing his anger at Tower. “They can’t do that much for the people?”

In July, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he’d launch a $50 million hazard pay program, backed by federal coronavirus stimulus money, for workers making less than $20 an hour in health care, food service, and other industries deemed “life-sustaining,” according to a news release. A grant would provide workers a $3-an-hour increase for 10 weeks.

But some Pennsylvania employers, such as Tower, turned down the opportunity to vie for the funds, enraging their workers and showing the difficulties of administering such a program — which received far more applicants than it could accommodate.

The pandemic cleaved workers into two groups — essential workers, who had to report to a job; and the nonessential, who could work from the safety of their homes — shining a light on the working conditions of essential workers and elevating them to a matter of national concern. Workers spoke out about lacking paid sick leave and adequate personal protective equipment and about risking their lives for little money. And supporters joined essential workers’ calls in demanding hazard pay.

While some employers temporarily offered such pay in the first few months of the lockdown, many, such as Whole Foods, Giant, and Rite-Aid, ended the bonuses, though workers remain at risk. Some, such as Tower, didn’t offer additional pay at all.

Employers are ending hazard bonuses in part because they’ve realized they don’t need to incentivize workers to come to work. In the early days of the pandemic, employers weren’t sure whether they’d have enough workers to meet demand, said Erin Hatton, a professor of labor sociology at the State University of New York-Buffalo.

But now, she told Marketplace, a national radio show focused on the economy, “employers are more easily finding workers, so they’re decreasing incentives to bring workers into the workplace.”

Companies in Pennsylvania that turned down the state grant opportunity said the program involved too much red tape for too little benefit.

The state received more than 10,000 applications totaling more than $880 million in requests for the $50 million program, state spokesperson Rachel Wrigley said.

The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, outside of Temple University Hospital last month, is demanding hazard pay for working through the coronavirus pandemic.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, outside of Temple University Hospital last month, is demanding hazard pay for working through the coronavirus pandemic.

In an email to employees sent this month and obtained by The Inquirer, Tower Health said it would not apply for the grant because “the program’s many eligibility criteria and limitations make it difficult for a fair and equitable distribution of dollars.”

The program, Tower noted, would provide hazard pay only for those making less than $20 an hour, which would exclude nurses and other clinical staff. It also limited the number of employees — 500 — at any given location who could get the hazard pay, creating, Tower said, “winners and losers.”

Out of Tower’s more than 14,000 employees, there are 3,200 subcontracted and direct employees making less than $20 an hour across its network, which includes seven hospitals and a home-care and urgent-care division, Tower spokesperson Jessica Bezler said. Tower told its subcontractors not to apply for the grant for its employees working at Tower hospitals, Bezler confirmed to The Inquirer.

Canada, a 28-year veteran of Chestnut Hill Hospital, and most of the coworkers in his union local — techs, subcontracted cleaners and dietary workers — are among those making less than $20 an hour. They’ve been “scared out of their minds” working during the pandemic, said Canada, 57. Some of them have tested positive for COVID-19 and have missed out on months of work.

When Tower said it did not want to create “winners and losers” by applying for the grant, Canada said, he was stunned. The pandemic, he said, has already created winners and losers.

Debbie Johns, left, and Elizabeth Mitchell are cleaners at Chestnut Hill Hospital. Most cleaners at the hospital, employed by subcontractor Xanitos, make less than $20 an hour.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Debbie Johns, left, and Elizabeth Mitchell are cleaners at Chestnut Hill Hospital. Most cleaners at the hospital, employed by subcontractor Xanitos, make less than $20 an hour.

Supermarket chain Giant was another employer that did not apply for the grant, though Wolf made the hazard pay announcement at a Giant storefront in Carlisle.

Giant spokesperson Ashley Flowers said that the grant would have excluded more than 6,000 employees who work in other states and that it chose to forgo the grant “so that smaller, family-owned companies facing significant challenges could share in the limited grant monies.”

“Instead, we will be acknowledging the great work of all of our 35,000 team members with a more valuable award of $100 in groceries this September,” Flowers said.

Wendell Young, president of UFCW Local 1776, a union representing such essential workers as meatpackers and grocery clerks, said he believed that employers might resist applying for the state aid to avoid the question of hazard pay for employees making more than $20 an hour.

That some employers did not apply for the grants highlighted an apparent shortcoming of the hazard pay program: It’s an initiative to benefit the rank and file, but it’s up to management to decide whether to apply for it.

For Canada, who scoffed at such gestures as the big “Heroes Work Here” sign outside Chestnut Hill Hospital, the avoidance of the hazard pay program by Tower only served to reinforce his belief that his employer wasn’t looking out for him and his colleagues.

“Why would Tower Health deny this money to the people?” he said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.