As the Legislature churns ever so slowly figuring out how to spend billions in extra cash, here are the people waiting on the money that they ― unlike our “leaders” ― need.
They are grocery workers, such as Colleen Bernardo, who was hoping to receive a bonus of up to $2,000 that lawmakers are considering giving to low-income, essential workers who worked in-person during the state’s COVID-19 emergency.
They are small business owners like Fresh Food Generation restaurateur Cassandria Campbell who is bracing for another tough winter for restaurants and could use grant money to keep employees on the payroll.
They are Haitian migrants like Marckenton Ulysse and Lorana Sauveur, who made the harrowing journey through South America to the US border by caravan and by foot with their 1-year-old son in tow, arriving in Massachusetts just weeks ago.
While lawmakers ended their formal session for the year and have mostly deserted Beacon Hill for the holidays, people struggling financially are left in limbo at an especially stressful time of year. If government is about extending help when and where it’s needed most, then in this instance, state lawmakers are failing miserably. Legislative leaders say there is hope for a compromise in the coming weeks, even though they missed their self-imposed deadline of reaching a deal before Thanksgiving.
Bernardo, a part-time employee for Stop & Shop in Reading and among the thousands of low-income essential workers eligible for a bonus, emphasized the urgency of the matter: “Christmas is coming.”
President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law in March, sending $5.3 billion to Massachusetts to help the state’s most vulnerable cities and towns recover from COVID-19′s economic devastation. Not all of it has to be spent this year; the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker have already disbursed about $400 million in what, in hindsight, feels like a rare moment of decisiveness. Baker funneled $109 million to hard-hit municipalities such as Chelsea, and another $75 million went toward a COVID emergency sick leave program.
Baker was supposed to decide how to spend the relief money, but the Democrat-led Legislature wrested that power away from him. The Republican governor in July all but predicted the foot-dragging that would ensue.
“Time is of the essence,” he said during a July hearing.
Understandably, lawmakers bicker when there’s not enough money to go around. But they’ve proved adept at squabbling when the cash is flowing, too. The $3.8 billion spending package that Beacon Hill failed to pass is also expected to include a large chunk of the state’s budget surplus of $1.5 billion. Last fiscal year the state collected $5 billion more in tax revenue than it had projected; while the bulk of the money has been deposited in the state rainy day account or covered other leftover costs or transfers, the Legislature put the rest in a separate account it could tap.
“I’m really disappointed,” said Fernando Lemus, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.
Lemus was already unhappy with how the package was shaping up because as it is now written, many of his members would not be eligible for essential worker bonuses. Only individuals making less than $39,000 or a family of four earning less than $80,000 would qualify. Local 1445, which represents workers in commercial laundries, manufacturing, and at Stop & Shop, pushed for higher income cutoffs — at five times the federal poverty level, or about $65,000 for an individual and about $132,500 for a family of four.
Cheryl Ferullo, who manages the deli counter at Stop & Shop in Reading and is a member of Local 1445, said she just misses the proposed income cutoff. Ferullo said she feels as if she is being penalized because she has been working six days a week to compensate for the store’s lack of staff. Of the 100 workers on the payroll, she estimates, just a handful, the part-timers, are eligible for a bonus.
“I don’t make a bad living,” said Ferullo, but “a lot of us are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Bernardo, her Stop & Shop colleague, has a message to Beacon Hill: Don’t be a Scrooge. Give bonuses to all essential workers.
“People who are risking their lives all along . . . should be getting it,” said Bernardo, adding that the current proposal sends a mixed message of “we’re essential but not really.”
The pandemic has been tough for Altagracia Diaz, who works an overnight shift at Logan Airport cleaning airplane cabins and is a member of 32BJ SEIU, which also represents janitors and security officers. She was out of work for a year, and the prospect of an essential worker bonus would come as a relief.
“That would be wonderful,” Diaz said through a Spanish interpreter. “That would be a blessing from above.”
The spending package also aims to set aside money to help small businesses. Nearly two-thirds of small businesses in Massachusetts say they have yet to recover from the pandemic, according to a recent survey conducted by Alignable, an online network for small businesses. From rising COVID cases to inflation and higher supply costs, they have plenty to worry about.
Small business owners I spoke to appreciate the government money that flowed to them last year, whether in the form of forgivable federal Paycheck Protection Program loans or state grants. But the pandemic isn’t over, and they will need more assistance to make sure they not only survive, but thrive.
Campbell, co-owner of Fresh Food Generation in Dorchester, said money from the spending package will allow her farm-to-plate Caribbean-American food restaurant to develop a better plan for winter when business tends to slow down, even more so during a pandemic because some people remain reluctant to eat indoors.
She wants to avoid cutting the hours of her dozen employees. Good workers are hard to find in a tight labor market.
“As we head into the third year of the coronavirus, support to get through the hardest period is really important,” said Campbell. “State funds help us get through those three months, knowing you have enough in your bank account.”
Perhaps the people who are counting on Beacon Hill money the most are the Haitian migrants who have begun to arrive in Massachusetts after the Biden administration in September declared it would deport Haitians gathered at the Texas border.
Unlike Afghan refugees who are benefiting from federal money to help with their resettlement, most Haitian migrants are relying on nonprofits for basic needs. The Senate is proposing about $8 million in the spending package for Haitian resettlement. About 1,600 Haitian migrants have already found their way to Massachusetts, and hundreds more are expected, according to Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute, or IFSI, in Boston.
On Monday morning, a steady stream of Haitian migrants, often with toddlers in tow, flowed into the IFSI center in Mattapan looking for housing, a job, and other assistance. They’ve flown to Massachusetts, through the generosity of family and friends, where there is a burgeoning Haitian-American community. They’re living on the good will of others in places such as Brockton and Malden.
The stories you’ll hear at this center on Blue Hill Avenue are soul crushing. Some left Haiti years ago, trying to make it in another South American country such as Chile or Brazil. Over the summer, they decided to make the dangerous trek to America.
Ulysee, 23, and Sauveur, 25, made an excruciating journey with their son, arriving late in the summer in Del Rio, Texas, where border patrol mounted on horses accosted Haitian migrants.
Speaking in Haitian Creole, Ulysee and Sauveur told me they have been in Massachusetts one month and are staying in Malden with family members. The Rev. Dieufort Fleurissaint, executive director of True Alliance Center, a Boston advocacy group for Haitians, translated the conversation and said the couple found their way to the Boston immigrant center through a Google search.
Wearing a Celtics sweatshirt, Ulysee told me: “Despite all the dangers we faced, we are so hopeful and determined to make it here.”
Fleurissaint said he is frustrated by Beacon Hill’s inaction.
“They don’t get the urgency of the situation,” he said.
I suppose there’s always the chance for a Thanksgiving miracle.
Either through public shaming or self-enlightenment, maybe legislators can pause their vacation long enough to come up with a plan that puts people first.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.