LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday unveiled a plan to use $400 million in federal funding to reward essential workers who have remained in the field throughout the pandemic.
“From health care heroes to first responders to grocery store workers and educators, the bravery and dedication of these essential workers has remained strong,” he said.
Roughly 24 hours later, Caren Lamblin hadn’t heard about the plan. But after being told the broad outline of what Beshear announced, she said she was “encouraged.”
“It would be nice for even a small recognition that there was a risk we took to keep even the little things running for folks," said Lamblin, who works at a Central Kentucky clothing warehouse.
Beshear said he would send a “framework” to the legislature in the next week or so, but he offered a few details Monday. The $400 million to fund the "essential worker bonuses'' would come from American Rescue Plan Act.
Beshear said he would call for the creation of a working group composed of legislators and members of the executive branch to determine the amount of the bonuses and who would be eligible for them. He suggested that they should only go those who worked on the front lines between March of 2020, when the pandemic hit, to the spring of 2022, when the bonuses would potentially be available.
"Our members have made many sacrifices and risked their own health and safety to make sure we all have had the food and supplies we need for our families during this pandemic," said Caitlin Blair, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227, a labor union for thousands of essential workers in Kentucky and Indiana. "We applaud Gov. Beshear for recognizing how important their hard work has been to us all."
Paying out the bonuses next spring could also help retain workers in key fields, Beshear said.
“The idea that those dollars are there for everybody who sticks it out for two full years is something that I think all of us as Kentuckians should support,” Beshear said.
He specifically mentioned that the promise of a bonus could prevent health care workers, especially nurses, from leaving the field or from taking a more lucrative job in other states. “Don’t go with that traveling agency. Make sure you stay the course,” he said.
Delanor Manson, CEO of the Kentucky Nurses Association, said other states have even worse nursing shortages, making the commonwealth's nurses ripe for poaching. "What we need is a way to retain our nurses so that they don’t leave us," she said.
A bonus could help accomplish that, Manson said. But she added that rewarding nurses should be about more than the money. "It’s really about showing some appreciation for what nurses have done to stay out there and to keep doing the work," she said. "Last year nurses were heroes. This year they’ve been spit on. They’ve been called names. They’ve been verbally abused."
She added that a bonus is about "recognizing the extraordinary effort that nurses have made to take care of patients and families."
In recent weeks, Beshear has resisted calls from Republican lawmakers to hold a special session to address the state’s health care worker shortage. Around two-thirds of Kentucky’s hospitals are currently reporting critical-staffing shortages, he said Monday.
That may begin to improve as the most recent COVID-19 wave wanes in Kentucky. After two months in double digits, Kentucky’s positivity rate has dipped below 10. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is also falling, along with the number in the ICU and on ventilators.