Politics

Retirement credit eyed to pay back essential public workers

BOSTON (SHNS) – Public employees in the state who worked in-person during the COVID-19 state of emergency would receive a three-year bonus retirement credit under legislation advocates pitched as a way to recognize the often-times perilous tasks essential workers undertook during the pandemic.

The bill (H 2808 / S 1669), filed by Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik and Sens. John Velis and Nick Collins, has amassed over 100 cosponsors in the Legislature and was a leading subject of conversation at a Public Service Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon.

At the start of the pandemic, the state was processing COVID-19 test results before sending them off to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for official confirmation. During that time, “we were the only show in town,” said Scott Hennigan, a molecular supervisor for the State Public Health Laboratory.

“We were the COVID response,” he said during the hearing. “And all staff from all laboratories in the building stepped up and came forward to go into hoods, to do the paperwork, to work with the systems, the computer systems, to get the results out the door within a 24-hour period of time.”

Those staff members, Hennigan said, deserve the benefits included in the legislation. “While most everybody else was sheltering in place at home, we had to go to work. We had to face the threat of infection,” he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when the governor declared a state of emergency and many businesses and functions of life shut down, Zlotnik said residents relied on public workers to continue to do their jobs.

From corrections officers to public works employees and first responders to information technology staff, the Gardner Democrat said their work could not be done remotely and was essential to the continued operation of basic government functions.

“This was the time when these essential services were most important, the people being asked to perform them were most at risk coming into contact with members of the public and with co-workers,” Zlotnik said during the hearing. “They continued to do their jobs, often exhibiting flexibility and creativity and an effort to ensure that those needs were met. It is in recognition of that effort that we offer this bill.”

The legislation directs the secretary of administration and finance to identify all public employees who volunteered or were required to work at job sites or outside of their homes during the state of emergency.

The secretary would then work with departments and subdivisions of state government to create a list of those employees and provide it to the State Retirement Board. The board would notify each employee who is eligible for the credit, which would be available for use at any time on or after the effective date of the bill.

The bill is getting consideration at a time when many are urging the Legislature to share the nearly $5 billion in American Rescue Act funds with various interests, from essential health care workers to small businesses that are facing big unemployment insurance increases due to forced shutdowns.

And while there was an outpouring of support for the bill in the first three and half hours of the hearing, committee co-chair Rep. Ken Gordon questioned Zlotnik on whether or not a financial or fiscal analysis had been conducted relative to the cost that would be incurred if the legislation was signed into law.

“The short answer is we don’t have a final number as we sit here today. We’ve begun to work on what I would say [is] data collection to try and get some broad estimates,” Zlotnik said in response to Gordon’s questions. “The reality is with a proposal like this, which is a bit different from your typical [early retirement incentive program] that we’ve done many times in the past, there’s a lot more variables with this, it’s spread over a longer period of time, it affects different people, and there’s a lot of data that we still need to gather.”

Gordon, who said the policy behind the bill “is very admirable,” also questioned whether Zlotnik and other filers would be open to considering placing a minimum number of hours paid for work in an effort to further define which public employees would be eligible for the credit.

Zlotnik said he recognizes that many details associated with the proposal still need to be contemplated.

“Speaking for myself and my lead sponsor, I think we’re prepared to be very flexible in working out those details,” he said. “The important part is that we recognize those folks who made that action, and I think that there probably will need to be some consideration, like what you described.”

Kevin Flanagan, a legislative agent for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said officers were faced with challenges during the pandemic that they had never seen before. Staff frequently contracted the virus after going into units they knew were COVID positive, he said.

“Those staff members went in there to do their job like they’re trained to do, not knowing what the ramifications were and a lot of times going home with COVID and subjecting their family members to COVID,” he said. “… This retirement credit would be a well-deserved sign of appreciation for all those that faced this danger and put their safety aside so they could maintain safety and security in our prison system.”

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