Hazard pay program thanks essential workers

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BRATTLEBORO — Words of gratitude are nice to hear but, as the saying goes, money talks.

"A handful of us were quite determined to create what we call the Hazard Pay Grant Program," Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, who is running for lieutenant governor, told several staff members of Thompson House gathered in front of the Brattleboro rehabilitation and nursing center Wednesday afternoon. "By putting $30 million on the table for this very specific purpose, it was our too-modest but important way of saying more than thank you but we recognize the value of what you've done and know this has not been easy."

Ashe said federal money coming to the state tied to coronavirus pandemic relief was limited but legislators did not want the only people left out of financial assistance to be those on the frontlines. Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Scott signed off on the program as part of a second stimulus package.

The downside of the program, Ashe said, "is it can't go to everybody and the amount is nowhere near sufficient to recognize not just the effort that people put in but the risk that was very real and the great level of anxiety, which in those first couple of months we all felt and still feel as you know, acute back then. But some people did not have the luxury of not showing up to work."

Full-time workers at facilities like Thompson House making less than $25 an hour will be eligible for as much as $2,000. Part-time employees with the same income qualification can get as much as $1,200.

Ashe said he knows the money does not "close the gap" for when comparing paychecks for individuals who were working at lower wages to the extra $600 provided weekly in unemployment benefits.

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"But $2,000 is still a good-faith attempt to say thank you in a monetary way," he said. "On behalf of the Senate, I want to say thank you."

He noted Windham County's senators Becca Balint and Jeanette White supported the program.

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Dane Rank, facility administrator at Thompson House, started a petition on change.org in support of the bill that eventually established hazard pay for Vermont's essential workers. As of 1 p.m. Thursday, 186 people had signed.

"This bill addresses the unique situation for the thousands of Vermont's essential workers, including healthcare workers, who continue to make drastic sacrifices in order to protect Vermont's most vulnerable," the petition states. "Gov. Scott's order prohibiting visitors and entertainers from Nursing Homes while prudent, has meant that in addition to our workers' regular duties they are playing games, worshiping, or entertaining our parents and grandparents as well. They do this as they watch with sadness as our elders lose the most important thing in the world to them: Time spent with close family and friends."

In the petition, Rank said the lives of his employees are "disproportionately at risk as scores of their fellow caregivers die from COVID-19, and yet they continue to protect our state's most vulnerable while the rest of the country resumes normal life. Theirs will not be normal for many months to come."

In April, Thompson House had a scare after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. All residents and staff were then tested, and no one else came up positive.

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Employers will submit applications for hazard pay. Eligible are those who employ one or more individuals in Vermont in an assisted living residence, a nursing home, a residential care home, a therapeutic community residence, a health care facility, a physician's office, a dentist's office or a dental facility, a homeless shelter, a home health agency, a federally qualified health center, a rural health clinic or clinic for the uninsured, a program licensed by the Vermont Department for Children and Families as a residential treatment program, an ambulance service or first responder service, a morgue, or a provider of necessities and services to vulnerable or disadvantaged populations, according to vtchamber.com.

"We wanted to express a heartfelt 'thank you' to Sen. Ashe for introducing this bill in the Senate, and his steadfast support for everyone here who continues to sacrifice so much," Rank told the Reformer.

On Thursday, Thompson House held its first outdoor concert since the pandemic began. Residents wore masks and kept 6 feet distance from others as they watched Gin Mill Bill perform country and folk tunes in front of the facility.

"We feel that this mitigates appropriately the potential for infection and addresses the significant need for outdoor, fun activities felt by all of our residents," Rank said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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