Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in NJ Insider.
New Jersey – On the same day that dozens of unionized essential workers were lobbying in Trenton to convince the powers that be to use $100 million of the state’s $3 billion federal aid surplus for hazard pay, word was spreading that the union that represents workers in Atlantic City casinos had just voted overwhelmingly to authorize a July 1 strike.
Labor’s on the move in a way it has not been in decades.
As it turns out, more than two years into a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans, many thousands of them essential workers, the number of workers’ petitions seeking union representation filed with the National Labor Relations Board has jumped 57 percent for the first six months of Fiscal Year 2022 to 1,174.
On June 16, union members, a couple with their toddlers in tow, snaked through the Capitol complex looking to present a letter making the case for hazard pay. It was signed by several union presidents, including Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO and was addressed to Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. The letter was also addressed to Gov. Phil Murphy.
“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. “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 il l— 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 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.”
Janet Booker is a security officer and a shift supervisor at Bristols Meyers in Summit, NJ who is an enthusiastic member of 32BJ SEIU. It was Booker who would present the letter to Scutari’s 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. He told Booker that he was “cognizant” that he was “one of the lucky people who worked for the state” so he “didn’t feel it [the pandemic] like others did like my friends, family and neighbors.”
The contingent got a similar polite reception at the Speaker’s Office.
While the energetic labor delegation, which included members of the immigrant rights advocacy non-profit Make the Road New Jersey, didn’t get any facetime or a photo with the leadership, they did run into Essex County Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, the Deputy Speaker who was happy to pose for a picture with the crowd.
“The remaining $3 billion in federal aid funds and the record-breaking $10.7 billion surplus in the state budget offer New Jersey a golden opportunity to do right by its essential workers,” wrote the labor leaders and their supporters in their letter to Murphy, Scutari and Coughlin. “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. 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 American Rescue Plan passed in Washington expressly recommends hazard pay as a legitimate use of the federal COVID aid funds.
“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.”
The state AFL-CIO’s proposal would require 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.