Williamsport, Pa. -- Last week was the deadline for qualifying business and organizations to apply for the Hazard Pay grant, which provides funding to be used to increase the wages of essential workers.
Employees at three major Pa. grocery retail stores, GIANT, Weis, and Wegmans, however, will not be getting the hazard pay.
In fact, these major retailers did not apply for the grant at all.
The process of uncovering why these retailers did not apply for the grant uncovered layers of misinformation, confusion, and empty promises.
The Hazard Pay grant, announced by Governor Wolf, allocated $50 million in funding to be used for increasing the wages of essential workers. The funding would reimburse employers for providing "hazard pay to employees in life-sustaining occupations during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," such as food retailers and grocery store employees.
Workers making less than $20 per hour would be eligible for the hazard pay, and could receive an additional $3 per hour, for a maximum total of $1,200 per full-time employee or $500 per part-time employee. Salaried employees are also eligible, as long as their hourly wage is less than $20.
The maximum amount of grant funds any one employer can receive is $3 million dollars.
The announcement for the Hazard Pay grant took place during a press conference in front of a GIANT store, in Carlisle, Pa. During his opening remarks, GIANT's President, Nicholas Bertram, said that GIANT would not be applying for the grant.
"We purposely decided to forgo applying for the funding so that we can allow essential businesses facing greater financial need the opportunity to receive that funding," explained Bertram.
GIANT is Pennsylvania's second-largest employer, and their decision to not apply for the funding means that many employees--deemed by the governor as essential--will not benefit from the additional wages.
The grant required business owners and employers to apply, while individual employees could not. This stipulation was intended to facilitate efficiency in the grant process; however, it left the final say in the hands of company owners and bosses instead of the front-line workers who would receive the money.
This is the case for Pa. employees of GIANT Food Stores, Wegmans Food Stores, and Weis Food Stores, which did not apply for the Pa. Hazard Pay grant.
When the pandemic first hit the United States, GIANT, Weis, and Wegmans increased the pay of their front-line employees. Starting in mid-March, each of these stores increased wages by $2/hour. The pay increases stopped at the end of May. The risk of COVID-19 exposure remained.
Further into the press conference, a member of the audience asked, "what happens if an employer doesn't apply and an employee wants it [the hazard pay]?"
"Well, if the employer doesn't apply," responded Carol Kilko, Deputy Secretary PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), "then, there's no extra money that will be going to that employee."
To find out if other larger grocery store companies were applying, NorthcentralPa.com spoke with local store managers, all of whom chose not to be identified.
A manager at a Pa. Weis store said that the company was not applying for the grant because Weis is a "publicly-traded company" and "only privately-traded companies were eligible for the grant." Nowhere could NorthcentralPa.com find this reflected in the grant guidelines.
According to representatives with DCED, that explanation was not accurate.
When further questioned about grant eligibility, the DCED offered information that was both was confusing and complicated. Some employees, such as in-house janitors were not eligible; however, other janitorial services did qualify for the funding.
To clarify, the DCED representative explained, "if a grocery company has three stores, and has a janitor at each store, those janitor are not eligible. But, if they have janitors from an outside company which they hired, then those janitors are eligible because it's an outside service."
On July 31, a manager at a Pa. Wegmans store said that all he knew was Wegmans was "looking into it." July 31 was the deadline to apply for the grant. It appeared Wegmans did not apply for the grant either, although NorthcentralPa.com was unable to get absolute confirmation.
A manager at a Pa. GIANT explained that the store decided not to apply for the grant because it "would not be fair to GIANT employees in other states" as they would not receive the extra money. This rational differs from the reasoning that Nicholas Bertram, GIANT's President, expressed during the press conference.
The manager at GIANT said the company "worked out that the grant money would be about $100 per person" and decided to provide its employees with a $100 GIANT gift card, which can only be used to purchase food at GIANT stores. The company also paid one-time bonuses, $400 to full-time and $200 to part-time employees at the start of July, prior to the announcement of the Hazard Pay grant.
A GIANT spokesperson explained that since employers are only eligible for a maximum of $3 milliton in grant funding and GIANT has 29,000 employees in PA, it would amount to $103.45 before taxes. All GIANT employees will receive a $100 gift card for groceries in September.*
The Hazard Pay grant was intended to help essential workers, as Governor Wolf explained during the grant's announcement. "The folks who work in places like GIANT and have worked here through this pandemic, have actually been putting their lives on the line," said Gov. Wolf. "These Pennsylvanians deserve to be paid for the risks that they're taking for all of us. That's really important."
*Updated on Aug 4. at the request of GIANT to reflect the limitations to the grant amount employers can receive and how GIANT's decision was based on that limited amount.