Thousands of businesses vied for a piece of the $50 million hazard pay program launched by Gov. Tom Wolf last month, but just more than 600 employers received money, the state announced Monday.
The “extremely competitive” program, backed by federal stimulus dollars, prioritized lowest-paying, highest risk, and most public-facing jobs, the state said. The grants will give a 10-week, $3-an-hour increase to essential workers making less than $20 an hour.
More than half of the grant money went to the health-care sector. The biggest grant recipient was the Training and Education Fund run by United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, a labor organization that received $6.4 million for the 7,000 home-care workers across the state employed directly by consumers. Home-care agencies, senior-care facilities, and care providers for those living with disabilities were among the other employers receiving the most money.
Essential workers across the country have been fighting for hazard pay since the beginning of the pandemic, along with a host of other COVID-related workplace issues, such as safety and paid sick leave.
In Pennsylvania, these workers, who say they deserve to be paid for the risks they take at work, are not high-wage earners. A quarter of workers deemed essential during the pandemic make less than $30,000 annually, according to an Inquirer analysis of federal employment data, and two-thirds make less than the state household median income of $60,000. The median hourly wage for home-care workers, thousands of whom will benefit from the hazard pay, is $11.17, according to a 2019 report from Pennsylvania’s Long-Term Care Council.
And although some workers received hazard pay in the spring, most employers have stopped providing the benefit — in part, experts say, because employers can find workers to meet demand and no longer need to incentivize employees to come to work.
The state received more than 10,000 applications requesting a total of nearly $900 million. Out of those applications, 5,000 businesses seeking a combined $500 million were eligible, the state said. Among the state’s requirements: Employers had to comply with the state’s public health orders aimed at protecting frontline workers from COVID-19.
The state looked at the dollar amounts requested within each industry category and prorated a percent of the $50 million accordingly to each industry, according to demand, said state spokesperson Rachel Wrigley. The grant reviewers also took into account the risk level according to OSHA, wages of industries and occupations, and availability of other federal funding relief.
Some businesses, such as Tower Health and Giant Food, did not apply, saying there was too much red tape for too little benefit. This decision infuriated some employees, who said it was just another suggestion that their employer did not care about them.
For Kearni Warren, a home-care worker in Chester and member of United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, the hazard pay for her fellow caregivers is more than just money.
Home care has often been looked down upon as not “real” work, said Warren, 43, a caregiver for her 95-year-old grandmother, who is on dialysis. “For a long time, people just kind of brushed us off ... like, ‘You’re just sitting around all day, watching someone. How hard could it be?‘”
“But with this COVID pay,” she said, “I do feel like that we are being recognized more for the hard work that we do.”