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Union seeks hazard pay for essential workers, funding for social services

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
SEIU Local 668 Business Agent Stephen Catanese, center, directs recently furloughed state workers James Jensen, left, and Amy Jensen, right, both of Windsor Borough, as he leads the group in protest prior to State Senator Wagner's announcement of  his intentions to run for governor in 2018 during a press conference at Penn Waste in East Manchester Township, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. The Jensens both worked at the Harrisburg Central Office and were a part of the 521 state employees who were furloughed due to a lack of funding. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The union that represents some public-sector workers in York County is calling on federal lawmakers to fund a stimulus package that includes hazard pay for all essential workers, access to more personal protective equipment and additional funding for social services such as unemployment, child welfare and Medicaid.

Service Employees International Union  Local 668, the Pennsylvania chapter of the social-services union, is also urging Congress to include money in its stimulus package to fund more paid leave for child care and COVID-19 sick time, fund expanded access to coronavirus testing and to provide money to state and local governments to make up for shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

"Every essential worker right now from the private to the public sector is taking on unprecedented burdens," SEIU Local 668 President Steve Catanese said during a Zoom video news conference  Thursday.

All of them deserve hazard pay, he said.

In York County, SEIU Local 668 represents workers at the Agency on Aging; the Office of Children, Youth and Families; Domestic Relations; Adult and Juvenile Probation; the York/Adams Drug & Alcohol Commission; the York/Adams Mental Health-Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities program; York CareerLink; the county assistance office; the York Community Corrections Center; the York County Office of Vocational Rehabilitation Services; and the nonprofit Service Access Management, according to SEIU spokesperson Christopher Hundley.

'Moral imperative': "I also think it’s a moral imperative that workers in these situations right now are supported," Catanese said, to include funding to increase their ranks in response to the public's increasing need for child welfare, unemployment and other services.

SEIU fears Pennsylvania will be forced to make drastic cuts to its public services if Congress doesn't provide funding to the state, as well as to county governments.

Catanese said earlier stimulus money provided "to the jobless and needy and hungry has actually helped the economy, while keeping them safe" during what he called the worst national economy since the Great Depression.

Alex Ciotti, a caseworker for Cambria County's Office of Children and Youth Services, was one of several union members to speak at Thursday's news conference.

"We are on the front lines," he said. "A lot of the time, we are responding without proper personal protection equipment," including entering residential homes, group homes and prisons.

'Clients need us': Ciotti said he and his fellow social-services workers   across the state still go to work every day — despite the limited PPE — because their jobs are important.

"Our clients need us more now than ever," he said.

He said a recently hired  co-worker with a college degree is making just about $13 an hour. It's already stressful trying to make ends meet on that wage, Ciotti said, and adding COVID-19-related hardships, such as paying for extra child care, makes it worse.

"The federal government needs to trust in and work with the states," said union member Shawn Domenico, who works for Pennsylvania's unemployment office.

He expressed concern that lower wages and extra economic stressors will cause a brain-drain at social-service agencies.

Senate Republicans' $1 trillion package is an opening bid in talks with top Capitol Hill Democrats — who back a $3.5 trillion House bill that passed two months ago — in a negotiation that could be rockier than talks in March that produced a $2 trillion rescue package, The Associated Press reported on Thursday.

Priorities: GOP senators and President Donald Trump are at odds over priorities, and Democrats say the Republican plans are not nearly enough to stem the health crisis, reopen schools and extend aid to jobless Americans, according to AP.

The must-have centerpiece for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a liability shield to protect businesses, schools and others from coronavirus-related lawsuits, AP reported.

The package is not expected to provide any new money for cash-strapped states and cities, but Republicans propose giving $105 billion to help schools reopen and $15 billion for child care centers to create safe environments for youngsters during the pandemic.

The GOP measure does forge an immediate agreement with Democrats on another round of $1,200 checks to most American adults, according to AP.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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