Tom Perez: Governor Hogan should extend and expand hazard pay for essential workers
By Tom Perez
The writer, a former U.S. and Maryland labor secretary, is a 2022 Democratic candidate for governor.
Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re facing what many experts predict will be the largest spike in cases yet. Across Maryland, hospitals are reaching full capacity, and we haven’t even seen the inevitable post-holiday season increase. January promises to be difficult for all of us.
The abundant availability of vaccines and booster shots means we have a powerful tool to save lives — and many people who get sick with the virus will have no symptoms or very mild ones thanks to the incredible work of the scientists who developed the vaccines, and the health care workers and public health officials who have administered them. Still, many people remain at risk, and the coming wave will stress many of our systems.
But just as we’ve entered another very challenging phase of this crisis, state employees are about to lose a critical support that has helped them weather this storm. Hazard pay for our front-line state workers will expire on December 31st, and Governor Hogan should take immediate action to extend this benefit for at least three months as the omicron spike takes its toll on the people of Maryland.
As many people once again retreat to their homes to telework, our essential front-line workers often don’t have this option. These are committed public servants who work in our correctional facilities and state hospitals. They drive public buses and care for and educate children in our juvenile facilities. They process applications at the Department of Motor Vehicles and applications for critical public benefits.
The hazard pay they have received has helped soften the blow of COVID-driven staffing shortages, and helped them deal with the pressures of inflation. With the stroke of a pen, the governor can dedicate some of the state’s American Rescue Plan allocation to continue this support for the people who have served on the front lines throughout this crisis. The hazard hasn’t abated — so we shouldn’t abate the hazard pay.
In addition, the governor should use ARP funds to extend hazard pay to non-state government essential employees. The people who work in our hospitals, our schools, our grocery stores, our child care centers and elsewhere have continued to show up for work throughout this pandemic, putting their health and the health of their families on the line to continue providing the services we all rely on. Our local governments, meanwhile, employ a large number of our first responders and public health workers. As someone who worked in local government in Maryland, I have a deep appreciation for the needs of local governments and the critical contributions local government employees make each and every day to our state. With the state’s unspent ARP funding balance substantially greater than that of our local governments, Governor Hogan should help ensure all essential workers can stay on the job.
Congress intended for ARP funds to support our communities as they continue to manage through the pandemic, and as they try to recover. There is no better place to invest those funds than in the pockets of front-line workers. Those dollars will go immediately back into our economy and local communities. They will pay for the increased cost of gas and groceries. They will support our local restaurants and stores. And they will ensure the people who keep our communities operating don’t fall behind on their rent and bills.
Perhaps just as importantly, they send a clear signal to these workers that we recognize their burden. They show that we understand the emotional and psychological toll this pandemic has taken each day, as workers have left their homes uncertain of whether they may be putting their families at risk.
Government has an obligation to help residents in times of crisis. The federal government has provided the resources necessary to help states do just that. The governor saw the need to extend hazard pay thus far — but the crisis isn’t over. Our governor needs to do what’s necessary to continue to support Maryland’s working families as we face yet another wave of this pandemic.