Hero Hazard Pay Languishes under the Self-Dealing Gold Dome

The Gold Dome.

It’s been a tough almost three years for New Jersey’s essential workforce between who knows how many COVID deaths and long haul cases of the vexing virus as well as a 20 to 24 percent hike in healthcare premiums. Whether you are a  congregant care worker, nurse or security guard you are also feeling the pinch of near record inflation and record corporate profit taking. 

And while society has seemingly moved on from COVID, if you have to work in a healthcare or congregant care setting the risks from COVID persist even as the country has come to accept three hundred deaths a day as acceptable.

It’s been close to six months since dozens of unionized essential workers, some with their children in tow, were walking through the corridors of the Capitol Building in Trenton in hopes of getting a chance to make their case for hazard pay with Senate President Nicholas Scutari or Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. 

Back in June, the delegation of essential workers presented a letter to the legislative staffers signed by several union presidents, including Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO making their case for $100 million  for hazard pay of what was then the state’s $3 billion in surplus aid from the federal American Rescue Plan.

“Throughout the pandemic, workers who because of their jobs were at greater risk of infection from COVID-19 were exalted as essential workers and heroes,” the union leaders wrote. “Such praise, however welcome, has done nothing to improve the material conditions of these workers’ lives or to compensate them for the additional risks they endured.” 

The state AFL-CIO’s modest proposal requires the hazard pay be limited to workers who were in the 1a or 1b vaccine eligibility groups, have performed at least 500 hours of work from March 16, 2020 to May 7,2021 when vaccines finally became widely available. Full time workers would get $1,000 and part time workers $500. Only workers whose annual income is 100 percent of the state’s average annual wage for all occupations which is $67,120 would be eligible. 

The American Rescue Plan expressly approved of state and local government using their federal COVID aid funds for hazard pay.

“We had within New Jersey Transit ATU, which represents 5,000 bus drivers—they had a lot of fatalities and a lot of sicknesses—the United Food & Commercial Workers who were on the frontline—just as the nurses and everybody else,” said Wowkaneck during an interview in his Trenton office back in June. “They were in the Shop Rites and the ACMES keeping food on the shelves in the very beginning before vaccination, before PPE, there was a lot of sickness,  a lot of loss of life across all of these unions.”

The NJ AFL-CIO leader continued. “We feel very strongly that a lot of this money that came out of Washington that Biden is talking about was supposed to go to help working families. A lot of these unions and their families suffered tremendously and we just don’t think it’s too much to ask some special consideration if what we are calling hazardous pay. These people went to work everyday with the fear of bringing the virus back home to their families and children. In fact, that did happen.”

“Healthcare workers were exposed to unsafe working conditions—they contracted COVID—they became ill—sometimes with long COVID and some died,” said Debbie White, president of Health Professional & Allied Employees, the state’s largest health care worker union, in an interview outside the Senate President’s office back in June.

As of last year, PBS reported  “about a third of U.S. states had used federal COVID-19 relief aid to reward workers considered essential with bonuses, although who qualified and how much they received varied widely, according to an Associated Press review.”

“A list of hazard and premium pay state allocations as of Nov. 18, provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures, shows funds have typically been set aside for government workers, such as state troopers and correctional officers,” according to PBS.

Here in New Jersey, as far as hazard pay, the City of Trenton followed through as did Burlington County. But according to Kevin Brown,  the vice-president and NJ State Director for SEIU’s 32 BJ, the State of New Jersey has yet to do so even as Connecticut legislators committed to come back for a special session after Thanksgiving in part to enact a hazard pay provision for the state’s essential workers.

“Essential workers continue to be essential, and as such it is the responsibility of the legislature to make sure they are properly compensated for all they do,” Brown wrote in response to a query from InsiderNJ. “Hazard pay continues to be up in the air in NJ, and honestly we do not understand why. Connecticut is coming together in a special session to negotiate for more money, so why can’t we? As we come together for this year’s holiday season, we want workers to know how much we appreciate them and all they do. We urge the legislature to reconsider hazard pay.” 

Connecticut’s not alone.  Minnesota provided $500 million in hazard pay to an estimated 667,000 essential workers with payments of $750 while Puerto Rico, itself struggling fiscally,  allocated $200 million to provide $2,000 payments to essential workers. 

Back in June,  Janet Booker, a security officer and a shift supervisor at Bristols Meyers in Summit, was part of 32 BJ SEIU’s Trenton delegation. It was Booker who would present the letter to Scutari’s then Chief of Staff Tony Teixeira, who came out of the Senate President’s office to greet the large contingent. 

“Basically, we need our hazard pay—we worked through the pandemic and we have a a lot of staff that lost family members—we had a lot of security officers who became their family’s sole provider—a lot of them had to give up their job, give up their cars and we deserve to have this pay,” Booker told Teixeira. “We protected the site. We did temperature checks. We kept everyone safe.   Now, we should be compensated for our hard work. So, I hope you take this into consideration and have a wonderful day.”

Teixeira pledged to get the letter to the Senate President Scutari.  He told Booker that he was “cognizant” that he was “one of the people lucky who worked for the state” so he “didn’t feel it [the pandemic] like others did like my friends, family and neighbors.”

Indeed. Teixeira evidently had his own ‘hazard pay’ deal going on. 

This week he pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of tax evasion before U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez. 

According to court papers and filings by federal prosecutors from 2014 to 2018, “Teixeira conspired with Sean Caddle, and Caddle’s political consulting firms, to defraud various campaigns, political action committees, and 501(c)(4) organizations of $107,800. Teixeira then failed to report this illicit income on tax forms that he filed with the IRS during those same years.”

“Caddle was hired by a former New Jersey state senator to create the PACs and 501(c)(4)s so that they could raise and spend money to advocate on a variety of issues, including supporting particular candidates in local races around New Jersey,” according to a press releases issued by New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger. “Teixeira served as the senator’s chief of staff and wielded influence over the consultants that the campaigns and organizations hired and the budgets that each of these organizations would receive.”

Prosecutors say Teixeira and Caddle conspired to “falsely inflate the invoices that Caddle’s consulting firms submitted to the campaigns, PACs and 501(c)(4)s with phony campaign-related expenditures” and that Teixeira received more than $100,000 and “never reported the money on the tax forms that he filed with the IRS.

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