Unions make pitch: Use COVID aid for NJ state worker hazard pay
TRENTON – With nearly $4 billion in federal COVID recovery funds available that’s yet committed to programs, the Murphy administration is soliciting ideas on how to spend it.
Sixty-six groups testified during more than four hours of hearings over two days this week, with no shortage of suggestions.
More help for renters and their landlords. Money for unauthorized immigrants shut out from earlier aid. Fund programs that address gun violence. Fix drinking water. Boost child care. Improve elections. Help businesses by paying back-to-work bonuses or repaying federal loans to the unemployment system.
But most of all, some groups said, don’t squander the opportunity.
“We’re in a very unique position,” said Chris Emigholz, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association government affairs director. “I mean, New Jersey, we’re not used to having cash everywhere. And it is everywhere. It’s local governments, school districts, counties, municipalities, the state. And now comes the hard part – that we have to use it wisely to make sure that we get the most bang for our buck.”
Perhaps no suggestion was repeated more the past two days than the unions’ push to provide retroactive hazard pay to state workers.
Steve Tully, executive director of AFSCME New Jersey Council 63, saidfrontline workers should get extra pay for hours worked in person from July 1, 2020 through the end of the public health emergency.
“Whether you call it hazardous duty pay, essential pay, emergency pay or anything else, these everyday heroes have earned this,” Tully said.
Fran Ehret, New Jersey area director for the Communications Workers of America, said Motor Vehicle Commission workers not only risked their health but put up with angry customers yelling and sometimes threatening them. All essential workers who couldn’t work remotely should get extra pay, she says.
“I’m sure you would agree that they deserve to receive hazard pay to reward them for the risk they have taken and continue to take each day,” Ehret said.
Frank Crivelli, an attorney for PBA Local 105, said state corrections officers should get premium pay of $75 per shift. He said five of the union’s died from COVID and over 2,200 got the virus, some spreading it to family members.
“We believe that this particular payment is going to be helpful as far as the morale goes to these members because of the illness and sickness that they’ve actually had, and again it’s going to be money that’s going to be paid to the members which is going to go directly back into the economy,” he said.
The online hearings were invitation-only and spanned the spectrum of interest groups – but written suggestions are also welcome from anyone, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About $2.3 billion of the state’s American Rescue Plan funds have been set aside for projects – with another $4 billion still to be decided.
The committed spending includes $750 million for eviction prevention, rent and utility help; $600 million for expanded special education services to students aging out; $450 million for emergency preparedness and infrastructure such as trauma centers; $180 million for school and small business efficiency programs, such as HVAC and water systems; $100 million for child care revitalization fund; $135 million for small business relief programs; and $25 million for commuter and transit relief programs.
Zakiya Smith Ellis, Murphy’s chief policy advisor, said input from two days of hearings this week will help made those determinations.
“We don’t have to obligate all of our funds until the end of 2024, so we really have some time to ensure that we’re being thoughtful and deliberative about this process and intend not to rush it,” Smith Ellis said.
Any major spending commitments will require the agreement of Murphy and a majority in the Legislature, as the governor has direct control over only $200 million of the funding, which can’t be spent in increments over $10 million.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.