Pennsylvania will stop paying about 9,000 state workers whose offices have been closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Friday.
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Paid leave for state employees whose work locations are closed and who are unable to work remotely will end April 10, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s Office of Administration.
The pay freeze affects about 12% of the state workforce, though individual agencies were hit much harder, with the state departments of Transportation and Revenue halting pay to more than half their employees.
About 5,700 of the affected workers are employed by PennDOT. About 900 work for the Department of Labor & Industry, about 850 work for Revenue, and the remainder are scattered across other agencies.
The frozen Labor & Industry positions are not associated with the state’s unemployment compensation program, which has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of claims, officials said.
State workers can use paid vacation days, sick leave or compensatory time to continue to receive a paycheck. Otherwise they will be eligible to apply for unemployment, officials said. The state will continue to provide health and life insurance benefits.
In Westmoreland County, Commissioner Sean Kertes told news organizations that nearly 500 county employees will be furloughed after Friday, with benefits.
In other coronavirus developments Friday:
Meek Mill’s masks
Philadelphia-based rapper Meek Mill’s criminal justice reform group is donating 100,000 face masks to some of the nation’s most notorious jails and prisons.
The celebrity-backed REFORM Alliance announced the donation Friday. It said 50,000 masks will go to the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, 40,000 will be sent to the Tennessee Department of Correction, and 5,000 are headed to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
The group, whose founding members include Jay-Z, has been pressing the nation’s jails and prisons to thin their inmate populations, improve sanitation, protect prison workers and take other precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Hundreds of inmates and staff at U.S. correctional facilities have tested positive for the virus. Health experts say people inside prisons and jails are at heightened risk because of tight inmate quarters, a lack of sanitation and substandard medical care.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported more than 1,400 additional people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number to over 8,420 in 63 counties. There were 12 new deaths for a statewide toll of 102.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Governor asks residents to wear masks
Gov. Tom Wolf Friday asked Pennsylvanians to wear masks when leaving the house.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine explained that while staying at home is the most effective way to protect yourself from COVID-19, wearing a mask or a bandana could be an extra layer of protection.
Levine said there is no need for most people to wear surgical or N95 masks as those need to be saved for health care personnel.
While a mask isn’t a pass to go back to work or to socialize, she added, it is one more tool that can be used to protect one against the spread of the virus.
Levine said wearing masks protects others against exposure to COVID-19 and can be an effective measure in fighting coronavirus.
“My masks protect you, and your masks protect me,” she said.
Both Wolf and Levine emphasized that the best way to protect oneself against COVID-19 is to stay at home and only leave the house for essential reasons.
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Boeing is suspending production at its helicopter plant outside Philadelphia but will continue to pay workers.
Boeing said the shutdown will begin Friday afternoon and last until April 20. The company said it will deep-clean buildings at the site in Ridley Township, Delaware County, and come up with a plan to safeguard workers from the virus.
Employees who cannot work from home will be paid for the next two weeks, the company said.
Boeing, which employs about 4,500 at the plant, produces military helicopters there including the H-47 Chinook and V-22 Osprey.
Continued air travel
Although social distancing is crucial, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in an interview with KYW Newsradio that domestic flights should not be temporarily grounded during the coronavirus crisis.
“Social distancing is very important and we must abide by that, but right now the airline companies are experiencing a 94% drop in passengers. Some of the airplanes are huge 737s — they’re carrying six people, they’re carrying nine people,” she said on Thursday. “These are commercial decisions that should be made by the airline companies.”
Fewer than 150,000 people were screened at airports across the country at the end of March, compared to 2.3 million at the start. National air space has seen a drop of 86%, in terms of the number of planes in the sky. Still, Chao said the federal government is focused on people on the frontlines of this crisis, like health care workers and first responders.
“The airline companies are hurting badly, but there are still people who need to get from, for example, New York to California. They can’t spend three days driving from New York to California,” she said. “They need to have this essential service available.”
Chao’s Department of Transportation is giving emergency grants to transit agencies across the country, totalling $25 billion.
SEPTA has seen a dramatic drop in ridership, too, due to the coronavirus, and it faces a $150 million revenue shortfall. Philadelphia-area transit agencies, including SEPTA, will receive roughly $700 million. Chao said this grant will help agencies recover.
Unemployment has skyrocketed in Pennsylvania, with nearly 800,000 people filing claims since mid-March.
But the state’s unemployment system seems to be seizing up from the record number of people attempting to file claims.
Philadelphia Unemployment Project Director John Dodds said many people are filing for the first time, trying to get a handle on this unprecedented situation.
“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on and they’ve never been in this situation before, and unfortunately, the state is not picking up the phone,” he said. “Its phones are busy day after day after day. Someone called the governor’s office and they told him to call us, which I find kind of incredible.”
Dodds is advising gig workers and those who are self-employed to hold off on applying for unemployment compensation until guidelines come down from Washington. Once things settle down and the checks go out in the mail, he believes people will like what they see.
“An additional $600 a week is available, which will last until July 31, on top of the regular state unemployment benefits. The other thing that’s important is self-employed people, gig workers who do a 1099 will get benefits,” he added. “They will also get the $600 on top of that,” along with an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
“We are really happy about that.”