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Booker, Payne Want VA to Increase Healthcare Workers Compensation

Two Washington lawmakers are asking the head of the Veterans Affairs department to ensure frontline healthcare workers are being paid what they are entitled to.

Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr.  called on the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide COVID-related compensation, including retention pay, to eligible VA New Jersey Health Care System employees that are serving on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The lawmakers explained in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie that the VA New Jersey Health Care System, unlike VA Health Care Systems across the country, is not currently offering retention pay, and has no plans to implement any form of COVID-related compensation to employees in the future. 

Review Pay Plan

With the VA New Jersey Health Care System having experienced one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation, the lawmakers urged VA Secretary Wilkie to reconsider current compensation plans, and provide employees with the pay they earned and deserve.

“In order to ensure that New Jersey’s vital VA healthcare centers remain open and fully staffed, COVID-related compensation, including retention pay, is crucial for retaining personnel,” Booker and Payne explained in their letter. “We urge you and your administration to institute COVID-related compensation for VA employees working in the hardest hit areas, review current policies related to staff health and safety, and provide greater transparency to employees and union leadership on how the VA is creating a safe work environment for all personnel.”

Questions to be Answered

The two Newark-based congressman lawmakers specifically posed the following questions to the VA:

  • How many VA Health Care Systems are currently providing COVID-related compensation, including Incentive Pay and Retention Pay? 
  • As the VA begins to experience a spike in COVID-19 cases across the nation, what steps iis the administration taking to ensure all employees are provided with proper amounts of Personal Protective Equipment?
  • Has the administration been in contact with union leadership representing those employed by the New Jersey VA Health Care System to ensure that the VA is providing a safe and secure work environment for all personnel?

Randy Erwin, national president of National Federation of Federal Employees, said it “remains a complete mystery” why the New Jersey VA Health Care System has so far refused to address the issue of COVID-related compensation.

“Other VA systems use COVID-related compensation authority to retain and compensate staff who work extreme hours,” said Erwin. “New Jersey VA medical staff and other personnel have worked around the clock for months on end, suffering physically and emotionally, to care for our veterans during the pandemic.”

Federal Rules

“The nightmare is far from over. The NJ VA needs to accept its responsibility to properly compensate VA workers to ensure veterans get the care they need with enough staff to make that happen,” stated Erwin.

Under current federal regulations, an agency may pay a retention incentive to a current employee if the agency determines that the employee’s qualifications or a special need of the agency for the employee’s services makes it essential to retain them. Retention pay allows for employees that would not receive hazard pay to financially benefit from their essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Booker and Payne, several Veterans Integrated Service Networks, VA Medical Centers, and other VA organizations across the country have started to provide this benefit.

Daily Data

For the first three days of 2021, the cumulative number of coronavirus cases in New Jersey reached 492,042 with 14,682 total new cases and 166 new deaths reported since Jan. 1 bringing that total to 17,187 The state listed probable deaths at 2,021, bringing the overall total to 19,208.

For North Jersey counties, Bergen had a total of 1,293 new cases, Hudson 1,293 new cases, Essex 1,187 new cases, Morris 774 new cases, Passaic 743 new cases, Sussex 280 new cases and Warren 156 cases.

State officials noted 58 deaths occurred in the last 24 hours of reporting that have not yet been lab confirmed.  

Of the total confirmed deaths in North Jersey, Essex County has the most with 2,153, followed by Bergen at 2,072, Hudson with 1,545, Passaic at 1,305, Morris at 787, Sussex at 172 and Warren County at 170.

In regards to probable deaths, Bergen has 263, Essex has 250, Hudson has 168, Morris at 178, Passaic at 157, Sussex has 43 and Warren has 13.

State Testing 

The daily rate of infections from those tested as of Dec. 30, 2020 was 13.2%; by region, the rate was 12.3% in the North, 13.3% in the Central region and 15.3% in the South. The state is no longer using serology tests as health officials explained those results show a past presence of the disease as well as a current one. 

As for the rate of transmission, it declined to 0.92 from 0.94 Dec. 31. Officials have continually cited transmission rate and positivity rate as health data they rely on to track how the coronavirus is being contained in New Jersey, guiding them in determining when restrictions have to be tightened or lifted.

Officials reported 3,521 patients were hospitalized; by region, there were 1,486 in the North, 1,151 in the Central and 884 in the South.

Of those hospitalized, 669 are in intensive care units and 462 on ventilators, while 298 patients were discharged.

Essex Tops County Count

Essex has the most cumulative cases in the state with 48,379, followed by Bergen at 48,302, Middlesex at 46,256, Hudson at 45,226, Passaic at 40,619, Union at 37,298, Ocean at 33,718, Monmouth at 33,165, Camden at 29,475, Burlington at 21,996, Morris at 20,880, Mercer at 19,204, Gloucester at 14,595, Somerset at 13,003, Atlantic at 12,647, Cumberland at 8,125, Sussex at 4,715, Warren at 4,078, Hunterdon at 3,882, Salem at 2,868, and Cape May at 2,460.  

Another 1,151 cases are still under investigation to determine where the person resides.

In regards to cases related to in-school transmissions, a total of 105 outbreaks involving 546 cases have been reported in 20 of the 21 counties in the Garden State, with three new outbreaks involving 87 cases recorded in the last week. For North Jersey, Bergen County has 21 confirmed outbreaks with 99 cases, Passaic County has five confirmed outbreaks with 25 cases, Warren and Sussex counties both having four confirmed outbreaks with nine cases, Hudson County has two confirmed outbreaks with 10 cases and  Essex County with one confirmed outbreak with 83 cases. Morris is the only county in the state without an outbreak.

Long-term Care Facilities

Health officials noted 427 long-term care facilities are currently reporting at least one case of COVID-19, accounting for a total of 11,852 of the cases, broken down between 5,681 residents and 6,171 staff. 

Cumulatively, 1,159 long-term care facilities reported a case infecting 29,837 residents and 19,022 staff, for a total of 48,859 cases. 

The state’s official death total will now be reported as those that are lab confirmed, sits at 7,521 on Dec. 31. The facilities are reporting to the state 7,307 residents deaths and 125 staff deaths.

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