OP-ED: Transparency needed in life-sustaining business waiver process
When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closing of businesses he deemed non-life-sustaining across Pennsylvania, I received an overwhelming amount of calls and emails with questions, concerns and fears about the impact it would have — not just on businesses, but employees and their families, communities and the financial future of Pennsylvania.
The number of contacts I have received from constituents of the 31st District and even people from across the commonwealth is well into the thousands and continues to grow as more confusion, rather than clarity, comes with every business waiver that is either issued or denied.
As my staff and I continue to try to get answers from the governor’s administration to help business owners, workers and consumers understand why one business was denied a waiver while a business of the same type has been granted a waiver, I am calling on the governor and the Department of Community and Economic Development to be transparent with the waiver process.
My expressing the frustrations coming from the business community are not intended to discount the magnitude of the current public health crisis we are facing, which has wreaked havoc on Pennsylvania’s residents with nearly 3,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 38 deaths, with over 30,000 individuals testing negative to the virus as of March 29, 2020. These numbers will continue to grow over the coming days, and we are fortunate to have such talented teams of health care professionals in this commonwealth to care for the individuals that have fallen ill.
During this public health crisis, Pennsylvanians have done a remarkable job at social distancing and practicing safe techniques to mitigate exposure to fellow residents. I stand by the need to continue doing so.
However, we must also recognize the impact that the governor’s order and subsequent waiver decisions are having on all of us. Yes, all of us. This is not just a business issue.
These decisions are having both short-term and long-term effects, and we will, no doubt, get through whatever negative impacts we face down the road. But right now, decisions need to be made consistently and transparently to reduce those negative impacts, just as we are all working to reduce the spread of the virus.
I do believe the Wolf Administration has done a consistent job of reporting data to the public with regard to the COVID-19 outbreak, providing online resources for residents, and even keeping government operating throughout all of this.
They have called back workers to ensure the continued availability of financial assistance for those in need. They are allowing child care centers — originally ordered to close entirely — to continue operating while waiting for a waiver so essential workers have a safe place for their children to be cared for while on the front lines of this crisis. And they are waiving a number of regulations for licensed medical professionals to allow more people to help where help is needed.
With that said, in navigating this uncharted territory for which none of us have a roadmap, the one area that I consistently am working with constituents to address is the business side of the issue. Just as they did with the initial order, the governor and his team are still picking winners and losers with no input from the industries being affected.
Pennsylvania has arguably been hit the hardest when it comes to any state’s economy, and we have seen an unprecedented number of layoffs resulting in a meteoric rise in unemployment compensation claims. Over 650,000 Pennsylvanians filed claims in the past 12 days according to the state Department of Labor & Industry. This equates to roughly 20% of all claims within the United States. This is an alarming figure and expected to grow, and I am concerned about the economic harm that we are about to experience.
Over 25,000 businesses have filed waivers with DCED to be deemed a life-sustaining business. The most recent numbers from the department indicate that 4,000 businesses have been granted a waiver and over 4,400 have been denied, while over 16,000 waiver requests idly await review. It has been exposed over the last few days that there are businesses within the same industry that have been granted waivers while others have not. Such inconsistencies are rampant across multiple industries.
One example that was shared with me happened this past when week a nurse en route to the hospital for her shift was in an automobile accident, resulting in her car being totaled. When she and her husband went to a local car dealership, they were unable to purchase a vehicle because the dealership they chose had not received a waiver, while a competitor across town had received one. This woman, who is a vital resource during the current health crisis, should not have to make such a necessary and expensive purchase at a place of the choosing of the governor or his staff.
This makes me question the structure and efficiency of the review process that has been established for waivers. Why are all car dealerships not categorized together for review? What is the basis for granting one dealership a waiver but not another? I can’t tell you because I don’t know, and the administration will not tell us.
This has been a theme over the last few days in nearly every sector, and the discrepancies among contractors and manufacturing may be the worst. There is no consistency in these fields, and I have heard multiple reports of competition even reporting each other to law enforcement. Not only should this not be happening in the first place, I can say that over my decades of experience in law enforcement, the last thing that men and women who wear the uniform want is to investigate a complaint against a business owner lodged by their competition. Law enforcement has bigger and more important jobs to do.
Because of these ongoing inconsistencies and the growing confusion, and for the sake of transparency that we all wish to have from our government, I am calling on DCED to post a list of every business that has been granted and denied waivers, along with the rationale for those decisions. It seems as though this transparency is requisite for Pennsylvanians to have the peace of mind in knowing that the decisions determining the future of businesses are in no way politically influenced. This needs to be a fair process, and it won’t be until such a list is published.
The governor and his administration can do better for the people of this commonwealth, and I hope that as we enter into this new week, significant changes are made to open more life-sustaining businesses in a fair and transparent manner.
— State Sen. Mike Regan is a Republican representing Pennsylvania’s 31st Senatorial District, which covers parts of Cumberland and York counties.