Business/Economy

How can caregivers who worked through the pandemic be sure they’re getting the hazard pay they are due?

Question:

I work as a caregiver. Unlike many employees able to switch to remote working, we caregivers traveled to our clients in their homes. They needed us to shower, cook and clean. For some of these people, we were their only contact with the outside world. We risked our lives every time we went out. We cared for and worried about our clients’ health. Even with masking, gloves and goggles, we were stressed.

I recently learned that the upcoming Alaska state budget includes $32 million in hazard pay for caregivers like me who worked through the pandemic. My understanding is this funding is to provide wage increases for caregivers. This was to reward us for the dangers we faced and to grant money to family caregivers. This money also helps families who have children with cerebral palsy or another a disability: Imagine not being able to provide for your family because you can’t find care for your child.

In a recent annual review, I received a positive review for my year of hard work and a raise of 25 cents an hour. That same week, my employer called an all-hands meeting on another subject but didn’t mention the money that was won for us.

I don’t want to make waves and am leaving the profession, but I worry about the caregivers who perform this underappreciated work. What are my and their rights? What is due to them?

Answer:

Let’s look at this specific legislation and the issue you raised.

The money intended for caregivers

Alaska’s state budget includes $32.9 million to support increased wages for personal care attendants. Of this, over half comes from federal funds. These wage increases will be retroactive to July 1, 2022.

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The appropriation includes this language: “It is the intent of the legislature that the employer entities receiving the increased reimbursement rate for providing services under the Home and Community Based Service Waivers, Personal Care Assistant State Plan, Community First Choice, and the Long-Term Service and Supports, Targets Case Management programs provide a 10% increase to employee wages.”

The Department of Health disperses these funds on an ongoing basis, typically monthly. It is then up to the provider that employs the personal care assistants to provide the wage increase. The DOH can’t require that employer providers pass on this increased reimbursement rate to their employees.

Are employers withholding money due employees

Your larger question is whether your employer is wrongfully withholding money you and other caregivers should receive. I don’t one hundred percent know the answer to your question, and it may be your employer hasn’t yet received the money or is in the process of allocating it. If you call or email your state representative, he or she may be able to give you more definitive information.

Meanwhile, I posed your concern to attorney Charles Krugel to learn how often this happens. Krugel says: “It’s not unheard of for employers to pocket federal and state pandemic relief monies for themselves. This happens too often, but more often than not they’re caught. On a macro level, it’s a drain on our resources because it takes taxpayer money to disclose, investigate and prosecute that misconduct. On a micro level, it’s usually wage theft. There are a lot of employers who just don’t get it.”

If you’re not receiving money due you, you’re not alone. My inbox filled during the pandemic with emails from other employees who felt their employers had sought and kept relief money intended for employees. The federal government is investigating employers who applied for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) monies to meet payroll expenses and retain employees but used that money for other purposes. According to Jackson Spencer Law, many business owners mistakenly thought they could use the money however they wanted -- “for example, paying themselves.”

Finally, your letter made it clear you and other caregivers put your clients’ interests first and foremost. Thank you.

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully,” and workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is president of Communication Works Inc. Send questions to her at workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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