While most hunkered down in their homes and dared not even let groceries into their domiciles without first drowning the sundries in disinfectant, they patrolled Reading’s streets and rushed the community’s first COVID-19 patients to area hospitals.
With medical grade protective equipment sparse and public health experts suggesting the virus could live on surfaces for days, the town’s firefighters, paramedics, and police officers dutifully reported to work each day as fear gripped the nation.
Now, with the threat of COVID-19 waning with each passing day, Reading’s workforce, and in particular those who continued reporting in-person to their respective jobs at the start of the pandemic, believe they deserve a little extra compensation.
“We are asking that the Town of Reading recognizes us for those efforts and provides us with a reasonable relief for the outstanding job done by all public safety personnel. If this was 19 months ago, I am confident that government leaders would happily vote to do so, using funds that place no further burden on the residents of Reading,” stated local firefighter David Ferreira, the president of the Reading Firefighters’ Association, in an open letter to the community sent to the Reading Chronicle early last month.
Ferreira, as well as representatives from Reading’s police and dispatchers unions, have been lobbying town officials since at least Oct. of 2021 for a piece of Reading’s $7.2 million share of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
More recently, Reading’s teachers, as well as representatives from various other town unions, have joined in those calls for a special hazard pay bonus.
“What we’re asking for is for all employees of the town and the various unions requesting funds to be treated equitably,” Jessica Bailey, the president of the Reading Teachers Association, told members of the town’s ARPA Advisory Committee (RAAC) during a meeting in Town Hall last week.
“What does this mean? In our opinion, any town employee who worked in person with the public through the pandemic should be given a stipend, or premium pay, whatever the term is, based on the amount that they worked,” the educator furthered.
And though not specifying exactly how much of a stipend they feel is merited, some town officials agree that hazard pay bonuses should be awarded not just to first responders, but to the secretaries, clerks, teachers, DPW workers, and other managers who were unable to work remotely during the pandemic.
One proponent of offering bonus stipends to a broad number of town workers – including those who may have had the opportunity to work from home at the start of the COVID-19 crisis – is Reading School Committee Chair Shawn Brandt.
One of the eight members of RAAC, which the town’s Select Board has charged with making recommendations about how to spend the town’s federal COVID-19 bailout money, Brandt earlier this summer suggested that anyone who worked in person before June of 2021 should be declared eligible for the proposed bonuses.
“When we’re talking about something like hazard pay, we’re not really talking necessarily about compensating people for their time. We’re talking about compensating people for some emotional toll that the risk of their job entailed during that time,” Brandt argued during a RAAC gathering in June. “I don’t know how much that differs based on whether you were working in that uncertain environment for eight months, or 11 months, I don’t how much that actually differs in practice. I’m not sure we could really quantify that.”
Part of a much larger $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress in March of 2021, the ARPA bailout package included some $350 billion to be used to assist pandemic-related recovery efforts within individual states.
Unlike the federal aid awarded to cities and towns under the previous $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, local cities and towns have quite a bit of discretion in how to spend the newest rounds of ARPA relief funding. However, expenditures must still fall under one of four criterion, which include:
• Pandemic-related expenditures, which could include the hiring or new personnel or the acquisition of protective equipment, vaccine, and testing supplies;
• Investments in local broadband capabilities or improvements to local water, sewer, or stormwater systems;
• Direct economic assistance to business groups, non-profits, or individual citizens who were especially harmed due to COVID-19 and the state’s response
• And to replace tax and local receipt revenues lost during the course of the pandemic.
Though once routinely discussed by government officials – and immediately identified as an ARPA-eligible expenditure – no surrounding communities have thus far agreed to award COVID-19 bonuses to first responders, educators, and other municipal workers.
However, the state has offered $500 bonuses to a variety of “essential workers”, including those in the private sector who were in “low-income” positions during the pandemic.
ARPA funds going fast
Last week, RAAC members uniformly agreed that a broad swath of Reading’s 800-plus strong municipal workforce should be considered for hazard bonuses.
But with the town’s Select Board already slating more than half of its ARPA funding towards a series of infrastructure priorities and new programming for town’s seniors and students, some RAAC members say some criteria must be established to limit who is eligible for the bonuses and how much of a stipend is being awarded to those workers.
“We all wish we had this unlimited magic money tree, but we don’t,” said RAAC member and Select Board member Mark Dockser during the most recent discussion around hazard pay.
“I do think we’re going to have to make some determination of who worked during what period of the pandemic. So we have some idea what we’re actually giving,” said RAAC member and Library Board of Trustees member Andrew Grimes during June’s initial talks around the bonuses.
Other early supporters of setting up qualifying criteria – even if it ends up knocking some workers out of consideration for the bonuses – have included School Committee and RAAC member Thomas Wise and RAAC Chair Marianne Downing.
During initial talks about the bonus pay issue earlier this summer, both members suggested the stipends be pro-rated based upon time and “risk” classifications.
“One of the fundamental questions is working throughout the pandemic,” Downing suggested during a RAAC meeting in June. “Do we even want to go there? It’s a difficult thing but you know the police officers, every day of lockdown, they had to work. Teachers did not have to work every day of lockdown, but some of them did.”
“We have to go there. There were phases that happened in the pandemic so you think about March 13, 2020, probably through most of the summer. Most of us were relatively locked down in that period without much going on,” responded Wise, who suggested a bonus cut-off date for any worker who didn’t work in-person prior to May of 2021.
Though not getting into the back-and-forth over how to determine which employees are eligible for the special stipend, Reading’s first responders have argued that at a minimum, those who had to work during the entire course of the pandemic are entitled to at least something.
In an early letter sent to town officials last fall, Ferreira, as well as Reading Police Lt. Detective Richard Abate, representing the police department’s superior officers, and Reading Police Officer Ian Nelson, of the patrolman’s union, urged town officials to remember just how terrifying the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were for Reading’s essential workers.
During the first six-months of the pandemic, some 21 town firefighters alone contracted COVID-19, the public safety union representatives pointed out to town officials.
Dozens of other police and firefighters would ultimately test positive as they encountered sick residents and spend their time in quarantine worrying about whether they had put their families at risk. In one particularly frightful instance, one first responder learned his pregnant spouse had contracted the virus.
“I would like all of you to think back approximately 19 months ago, mid-March of 2020. It was a time of uncertainty as cases were being detected in the greater Boston area. The ‘super spreader’ Biogen event had just occurred and cases in Reading were rising. The schools closed, lockdowns began, non-essential employees were put on leave and many employees were sent home to work from home. Thank goodness for Zoom!” recalled the union reps.
“However, as firefighters, as police officers, as 911 dispatchers, we came to work every day and continued to provide a vital service, one which could not be Zoomed, at the onset of an unknown pandemic, with what protections we could put in place,” the first responders continued. “We had no idea if we were taking it home to our families. We were changing our uniforms in basements and garages. We were taking whatever steps we could to help us feel as safe as possible during these most trying times.”
(Excerpts from stories provided by Reading Chronicle staff writers Bob Holmes and Mac Cerullo were used to compile this report.)