Unions on the Outside Looking in on Trenton’s Budget Pact

The unions that represent tens of thousands of New Jersey’s essential workers, who put their lives at risk during the pandemic, failed to convince Trenton’s Democratic legislative leaders that their members were worthy of $100 million in hazard pay. However, legislators did add scores of pet projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s record $50 billion spending plan that passed Wednesday night.

“The legislators ignored us and it’s not in the budget that’s being approved with a record $6 billion surplus including billions of dollars in left over federal American Rescue Plan money,” Kevin Brown, Executive Vice President and NJ State Director, SEIU 32BJ, told InsiderNJ. “They decided essential workers don’t deserve anything and we have record surpluses here. They are going to put $6 billion in a rainy day fund and I don’t know what the hell that does for someone who needs help now and served us, the residents of the state of New Jersey with such courageousness are just kicked to the curb.”

Nicole Rodriguez, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a progressive non-profit think tank was equally critical of the budget which made a priority of property tax relief and re-asserting the Democratic Party’s legislative leadership’s role in appropriating and spending the state’s revenue as they see fit.”

In a press release, NJPP noted the budget also lacked “proposals to expand safety net programs” for the state’s lowest income households like cash assistance in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund for undocumented immigrant households which included front line essential workers whose lives were upended by COVID.

“New Jersey’s working-class residents, immigrant families, and essential workers have faced serious economic challenges since the pandemic, and this budget should have been the prime opportunity to support them with direct relief,” wrote Rodriguez in a statement. “Instead, their voices were shut out of the budget process, while behind-the-scenes deals secured hundreds of millions in pet projects and corporate giveaways. With a growing and diverse population, New Jersey should not be a state where a few powerful people make decisions that affect the many without taking their voices into account.”

“The Bible teaches us that where your treasure is, there your heart is also. This budget reveals that our heart does not regard low and working families as essential,” wrote Rev. Sara Lilja, Executive Director, Lutherans Engaging in Advocacy Ministry. “It is often said that budgets are moral documents; this budget does not align with a morality that is committed to supporting the hundreds of thousands of essential working families that are the economic engine of our state. Morally, our state budget should be for the many, not just the powerful elite.”

ESSENTIAL WHO?

“It has been our immigrant workers who have helped us survive through this pandemic,” wrote Laura Bustamante, Policy and Campaigns Manager, for New Jersey’s Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “There is still no meaningful or permanent relief for those who continue to put their lives at risk and have been excluded from aid.  Essential workers have put their lives at risk and on the line day in and day out and today the legislature turned their backs on immigrant families and working people. The State needs to do more for those who risk their lives everyday.”

32 BJ SEIU’s Brown believes that the Democratic Party’s legislative leadership made a major political miscalculation by opting for making a higher priority of middle class property tax relief over providing any hazard pay for essential workers now being hit with record inflation even as they continue to face the risks of a pandemic that’s not officially over.

Brown referenced the United Way’s ALICE survey that indicates that close to 40 percent of the state’s households live below the poverty line or struggle month to month to make ends meet. Many of those asset limited, income constrained, but employed are the backbone of the essential workforce.

“The leaders of the legislature completely misread the results of the fall election and it’s not that people are upset with Democrats, they are just upset,” Brown said during a phone interview. “They better pay attention to that 40 percent of the electorate or they are really going to be in deep doo doo. It was this base that got  Gov. Murphy through this [his narrow re-election] This was more a legislative decision than a Gov. Murphy decision because if the $100 million was in he would have 100 percent signed it.”

Brown told InsiderNJ, his union would now shift their attention to making their case before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which has to sign off on how unexpended federal COVID monies are spent. “That’s our last hope for getting something which we are going to be pursuing,” he said. 

SHORT MEMORY

There is currently no official registry on the number of healthcare workers, police officers, firefighters, transit workers, or utility and other frontline workers in food processing and retail who died in the several months before the vaccine was readily available and basic PPE supplies like N-95 masks were in short supply.

For many months during the once in a century mass death event, which has now claimed well over one million Americans, New Jersey’s status as the most densely populated state in the nation contributed to it being the political subdivision with the highest COVID death rate on the planet. 

During Gov. Murphy’s daily COVID briefings he made frequent reference to the selflessness of the state’s front line workers singling out the sacrifice of front line essential workers like 24-year-old Kevin Leiva, a North Bergen EMT, who died back in September of 2020 from the killer virus.

Many more such profiles followed. Subsequently, multiple peer reviewed medical studies have documented the prevalence of so-called ‘long haul’ COVID in a significant proportion of the essential workforce population who often transmitted the infection to their household sometimes with deadly results.  

In March, the General Accounting Office estimated that up to 23 million Americans were now coping with lingering long haul COVID of varying severity with an estimated one million Americans forced out of the workforce as a consequence of their ongoing bout of the killer virus. New Jersey’s unions were successful in getting Trenton to provide for a so-called COVID presumption for essential workers filing state Workers Compensation claims, though some private employers, including hospitals, are still fighting such claims.

LOSS THAT LINGERS

According to “Lost on the Frontline”, a joint investigation by the Guardian newspaper and  Kaiser Health News over 3,600 healthcare workers died in the first year of the pandemic. So far, data collection has been limited to individual unions across the country which have confirmed thousands of deaths ranging from USDA meat inspectors to bus operators, who were particularly hard hit.

“The project, which tracked who died and why, provides a window into the workings — and failings — of the U.S. health system during the covid-19 pandemic,” according to a synopsis on the Kaiser Health News website.  “One key finding: Two-thirds of deceased health care workers for whom the project has data identified as people of color, revealing the deep inequities tied to race, ethnicity and economic status in America’s health care workforce. Lower-paid workers who handled everyday patient care, including nurses, support staff and nursing home employees, were far more likely to die in the pandemic than physicians were.”

Currently the U.S. Center for Disease Control is completing a Congressional mandated, first of its kind, occupational survey that will look at the impact of COVID on the nation’s essential workforce. 

The paying of hazard pay was one of the permitted uses that Congress included in the enabling language of the American Rescue Plan which was signed by President Biden early in his presidency. According to boosters of the proposal for a $100 million in hazard pay for New Jersey’s essential workers, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Puerto Rico opted to use a portion of their ARP windfall for hazard pay. 

On June 16, a delegation of front line workers, some of their family members and officials from their unions presented a letter making the case for hazard pay to aides to Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. The letter was also addressed to Gov. Phil Murphy. It was signed by several union presidents, including Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO. The letter was also addressed to Gov. Phil Murphy.

“Multiple states have provided hazard pay to employees,” according to the union leaders’ letter. “Notably, Minnesota provided $500 million in hazard pay to an estimated 667,000 essential workers with payments of $750. Puerto Rico allocated $200 million to provide $2,000 payments to essential workers. Connecticut has approved $65 million in hazard pay: $30 million to its essential private sector employees [$1,000 for full-time and $500 for part time workers] and $35 million for state employees.”

LIMITED POOL

The state AFL-CIO’s proposal would have required that it 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 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.”

“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 before the budget was passed. “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. And even now, quite frankly with the uptick and spike [it remains an issue]. I have two people out of my office right now that have it.”

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 every day 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 the day she lobbied for hazard pay. “The pandemic is not over. The pandemic is ongoing. While we don’t have a lot of people dying, we have a lot of people getting sick and the virus is still mutating, It is still spreading and our workers are still exposed to hazardous working conditions.”

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