Business & Economy

Senate approves $19.5 million eligibility expansion to hazard pay program

COSTCO coronavirus shopping
Shoppers at Costco in Colchester leave the store on Friday, March 13. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Senate approved a $19.5 million Covid-19 hazard pay program expansion Friday that would make grocery and hardware store workers, employees at essential retail businesses and in other professions eligible to receive compensation for continuing to work throughout the coronavirus state of emergency.

The upper chamber voted 28-0 Friday to move forward with S.353 which expands the hazard pay grant program eligibility to a number of jobs that failed to make it into legislation that was enacted in the summer.

In May, the Senate passed its original hazard pay program that had included retail and grocery store employees, but House members had concerns that the breadth of the upper chamber’s version might make it ineligible for the $1.25 billion in federal Covid-19 assistance funds — the source of funding for the program — and stripped the language from the final version of the bill.

Now it is the belief of legislative counsel that the federal coronavirus relief funds can be used to cover the expansion of the program.

There is also now precedent for that use of the funds with other states, including Pennsylvania and Louisiana, now setting up hazard pay programs covering similar lines of work as the Vermont Senate is proposing.

If the Senate’s expansion were to pass the House, the hazard pay grant program would grow to a $50 million fund — all covered by federal Covid relief dollars.

The current program only covers public health care and human services employers that remained open throughout the Covid-19 state of emergency from March 13 to May 15 and allows employers to apply for funding to provide $1,200 or $2,000 in hazard pay to each employee.

In the run-up to the special Covid-19 budget session, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, made it a priority to see that those who had been left out of the program received additional money for staying on the job in roles deemed essential.

“I am really happy that we have brought this bill back — that we are expanding our coverage,” Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on the virtual Senate floor Friday.

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Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told his colleagues that he had supported this measure back in May and that it was a shame that some Vermonters — who were eligible for the grants — have still not received money.

“It’s unfortunate that it took so long and many of us in the Senate fully supported this provision back when we first passed the bill and unfortunately the other body did not,” Sears said. “Because we’re the Legislature, we get blamed for it, and this rights a wrong in my view.”

The Senate also passed S.352 Friday, which includes slight changes to the enacted hazard pay program. The amendment increases the funding for fiscal year 2021 from $28 million to $30.5 million and clarifying language around eligibility requirements.

It remains unclear whether there is enough support in the House this time for expanding the program to a greater array of workers, which was the reason why the hazard pay measures were separated into two distinct proposals, according to legislative counsel who briefed lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Economic Development ahead of the vote.

The $28 million hazard pay program lawmakers passed in June began accepting grant applications on Aug. 4. 

While the program was making its way through the Legislature, House lawmakers shrank the program to $20 million from the Senate’s $60 million proposal.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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