The creation of a new state authority tasked with rolling out broadband internet access across the state was approved with the passage of a bill in both the House and Senate this week.
House Bill 2071, first introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Martin Causer, R-Mckean, Cameron and Potter counties, establishes Pennsylvania’s first Broadband Development Authority.
The authority will oversee and support broadband development across Pennsylvania, managing at least $100 million in federal aid given to the state to support the construction of new towers, lines and broadband equipment.
Pennsylvania is currently waiting for its portion of $65 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure development approved by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November.
“Decisions were made at the federal level to provide this funding, so it is the duty of the General Assembly to ensure that every dollar allocated for this problem is spent for its intended purposes and not wasted on boondoggles that simply do not close our digital divide,” said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York.
The investment in Pennsylvania’s broadband infrastructure is a needed one for the state’s rural communities, which continue to lack reliable access to the internet, said Gov. Tom Wolf.
“My administration has been working closely with Democrats and Republicans on this bill, because every Pennsylvanian deserves access to broadband,” said Wolf. “High-speed internet is vital for people to do their jobs, access school and health care programs and stay connected.”
Wolf applauded the bill’s unanimous passage in the Senate and is soon expected to sign it into law.
The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) will include 11 members, including five individuals from both political parties of the Senate and House as well as the governor.
Along with establishing the PBDA, House Bill 2071 requires the state to create a database to monitor all broadband deployment activities across the state. Entities that are eligible for funding must have technical, managerial and financial expertise to build and operate high-speed service infrastructure.
The PBDA will dissolve after its federal funding is exhausted or within 10 years.
“Just as access to electricity or running water should not depend on your ZIP code, neither should access to the internet,” said Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh. Because of this bill, these individuals will be able to have remote doctor appointments, pay bills online, stay connected with loved ones and build a better future.”
For-profit businesses that receive assistance through the Department of Community and Economic Development will have to offer paid sick leave under an executive order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday.
The order is an addition to a previous executive order by Gov. Wolf that ordered the department to require a minimum wage equal to the state’s minimum wage for government employees.
It is an effort by the Wolf Administration to tackle the state’s labor shortage and support Pennsylvania workers, Wolf said in a press release.
“With our economy on the comeback, there are so many job openings that people can select the option that is best for their family,” he said. “This is a critical moment for Pennsylvania workers, and it’s time we stop asking why there is a labor shortage and start asking how we can make jobs better. With Pennsylvanians renowned for our work ethic, this is an opportunity to improve jobs in the state, which will attract and retain hardworking people to live here and bring new industries to the commonwealth that want a talented, skilled and dedicated workforce.”
Along with directing DCED to enforce paid employee sick leave and continue its minimum wage requirements, the order also asks agencies under the Governor’s jurisdiction to review existing programs and program guidelines and consider imposing a minimum-wage requirement for their applicants for state funding.
The minimum wage for state workers is $13.50 and is set to hit $15 by July 1, 2024, which was part of an executive order signed by Wolf in 2018.
The order goes on to direct the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry and the Office of Administration to do a feasibility study of implementing Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards throughout state offices.
All state agencies are required to review and develop processes that ensure that businesses receiving grants are in compliance with Pennsylvania state labor and workforce safety laws.
Organizations that have violated labor laws, misclassified their workers, owe unemployment compensation back taxes or fail to carry workers’ compensation insurance will be included in a publicly available list through the Department of Labor & Industry, according to the order.
“After COVID-19 exposed our workforce to a new set of dangers, it’s all the more important that we update statewide worker protections,” said Sen. Jay Costa. D-Allegheny County during a press conference on Thursday. “In so many industries, they were on the frontlines of COVID exposure without the equipment they needed to keep themselves safe, or the time off to heal if they got sick, let alone paid time off to care for sick loved ones. I’m here today in lockstep with the Governor’s commitment to this issue so that our workforce can thrive here in the Commonwealth.”
Child Care Works (CCW), Pennsylvania’s subsidized child care program, is set to receive $352 million in funding to decrease costs to families who qualify for subsidized care and add incentives for child care providers.
The Wolf Administration announced on Monday that it will apply $352 million in Child Care Development Fund Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to support the state’s CCW funding, starting Jan. 1, 2022.
The funding comes after Pennsylvania received more than $1 billion from the ARPA to support the state’s child care industry, child care providers and the children and families relying on the system, the administration wrote in a press release.
“We cannot miss an opportunity to invest resources where they will make a positive and lasting impact on our children. By targeting investments to our subsidized child care system, we are investing in equitable quality child care for all Pennsylvanians, no matter where they live or their income,” said Gov. Tom Wolf.
The new funding for CCW will include $121.9 million to lower maximum copayments for eligible families. Current copayments through CCW range from 3% to 11%. The additional funding would lower that to 3% to 7%, in line with federal recommendations.
The funding will also give CCW $213.7 million to increase base rates for providers participating in CCW and $16.8 million for add-on incentives for child care providers offering non-traditional hours.
“Beyond its necessity for a thriving economy today, investments in quality early learning and child care programs carry into PreK-12 education and throughout adulthood,” said Meg Snead, acting secretary for the state Department of Human Services. This funding will give our youngest Pennsylvanians a strong start they deserve and supports the dedicated educators and professionals that make this possible.”
Governor Tom Wolf joined with advocates and legislators to celebrate the $30 million increase in early childhood education funding in the state budget at the YMCA in Reading.
The new funding will allow an additional 3,270 children to enroll in the state’s high-quality early learning programs.
“Early childhood education programs set students up for success,” said Gov. Wolf. “When our children are successful in school and beyond, that sets our commonwealth up for success, too. That’s why I’ve fought so hard to support early learning in Pennsylvania – doubling its investment – and this year’s budget increased our investment in quality early childhood education once again.”
Pennsylvania administers two early childhood learning programs: Pre-K Counts and Head Start Supplemental Assistance (Head Start). Both programs ensure access to high-quality early learning programs for low-income families. Together with $145 million in funding increases secured over the past six years for the programs, this year’s $30 million investment will increase funding for Pre-K Counts by 149% and funding for Head Start by 77% since 2014-15, according to a press release.
The $30 million early childhood education increase includes a $25 million increase for Pre-K Counts, equating to an additional 2,800 children, and $5 million for Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program, equating to an additional 470 children.
The governor was joined by Kim Johnson, president and CEO of YMCA of Reading and Berks County; Tammy White, president of United Way of Berks County; Julia H. Klein, chairwoman and CEO of C.H. Briggs Company; Yessenia Vasquez, parent of a child enrolled in early education; Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks; and Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr., D-Berks.
The City of Allentown’s Department of Community & Economic Development is implementing a $500,000 Small Business Stabilization Program using funds it received through the CARES Act.
Grants of up to $5,000 will be made to qualifying city businesses suffering financially because of the COVID-19 crisis.
The money is aimed at neighborhood businesses to help with cash flow needs so they can continue to pay employees and provide goods and services to the city’s residents where possible.
To be eligible for a grant a business must be licensed and located in the City of Allentown, with a strong preference to businesses owned by city residents.
The business must have under $1 million in gross revenue, with half of the fund targeting businesses with gross revenue of under $500,000 annually. The business must be able to demonstrate a loss in monthly revenue of more than 25% because of the pandemic.
Applicants must show how the grant will be used in promoting the interests of the program and their business.
The city intends to direct funds to small businesses that wouldn’t likely be able to get funding through larger Small Business Administration programs, but a business can receive grant funds as long as it’s not used for the same purposes as any SBA money.
The grant money can be used for such things as rental or mortgage payments, utilities, payroll, real estate taxes, and outstanding vendor invoices.
The largest stimulus package in American history was signed into law last week and while it may take time to feel its effects, businesses are beginning to look at what it could mean for their employees and communities.
President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law on Friday following the bill’s approval in both the House and Senate.
The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package promises to provide $1,200 in checks to Americans making under $75,000, $350 billion in loans for small businesses with less than 500 employees, and creates a $500 billion lending fund for industries, cities and states and more.
The law is meant to help businesses keep their employees, allow individuals to continue paying their bills with the help of the stimulus check and provide a broader net for people who find themselves unemployed.
Its passage was welcomed by business leaders across the state.
“I’m thankful that it passed,” said Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. “The economy went from white hot to zero. We need something and we need it fast. The next phase is to get people back to work.”
Iannelli described the stimulus bill as bold and something businesses desperately need. “They are hurting, they are not entirely sure what it entails but for right now, it’s a life raft for many businesses.”
Right now, the chamber, which relies on meetings and business events for revenue, is “out of business,” but has enough in its reserves to last for 30 days, Iannelli said.
“Cash flow has stopped. It’s just not going,” said David Black, CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC. “I don’t think anybody knows if $2 trillion is enough but it will address a lot of the need. That is an unprecedented amount of money.”
Business loans available through the stimulus could help organizations refrain from layoffs and furloughs, but businesses should be aware that the funds aren’t meant to help maintain their bottom line, said Travis Gentzler, president and CEO of Weldon Solutions in West Manchester Township, York County.
“Everyone is looking to keep their businesses open, but there is a difference between profits and poverty,” said Gentzler, adding that if Weldon Solutions was failing to pay its employees or keep the lights on, it would look into a loan.
Scott Fiore, president of TriStarr Staffing in Lancaster, has seen a number of business owners and leaders in the region struggle to maintain their employees and keep their businesses afloat; something he said could be alleviated in the short term with help from the stimulus.
Unemployment help critical
Fiore and Gentzler also praised the law’s expansion of unemployment benefits, which will increase eligibility and give unemployed workers an additional $600 per week, on top of what they already receive, for four months.
“The extra $600 in federal money for unemployment benefits is a game-changer in my opinion,” Gentzler said. “Most people cannot survive long on typical unemployment benefits, especially those who were already living paycheck to paycheck.”
Fiore, who works with employers through TriStarr, said most businesses he’s talked to are primarily concerned with trying to do what they can for employees. The additional unemployment benefits and the stimulus check will go a long way toward that goal.
The Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the Independent Electrical Contractors in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, expects the stimulus to have an impact on its membership, said Marissa Bankert, the chapter’s executive director.
“Not only will this package provide these small businesses with necessary lending to keep them afloat during this uncertain time, it will help employees maintain the quality of life they had prior to this crisis,” Bankert said.
HB Global, an employee-owned HVAC, plumbing and electrical installation company in Harrisburg, has focused on helping its employee owners and their families while trying to remain financially viable during this crisis, said Bob Whalen, the company’s president and CEO.
Whalen said the bill will go a long way in helping the company meet those goals.
“The U.S. coronavirus spending bill will help make this less traumatic for our employees with direct payments to our workers and improved unemployment benefits for those we have had to furlough.”
Time for patience
The Small Business Administration is also offering disaster loans to small businesses throughout the country. But Black warned that the applying for the loans online has proven difficult with so many companies trying to use the online portal at once. When applications open for the $2 trillion stimulus, there may be long waiting times there, as well, he said.
“You just have to stick with it, you might have to do it in the middle of the night,” he said. “We know the electronic portals will be slow and backed up. It’s just a matter of timing.”
Some praised the bill’s focus on small businesses.
“I think it’s a great effort and it was done quickly, and the channels of payments are in the right area,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.
Cunningham said the focus should be on small businesses first and noted the bill would include $350 billion administered through the SBA.
In addition, the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority is administering $61 million in small business loans, he said. LVEDC is administering these loans in the Lehigh Valley.
“We are seeing a heavy demand,” Cunningham said.
The Lehigh Valley chamber is one of the nation’s largest, and has nearly 5,000 members who employ more than 220,000 people. Now, Iannelli said, “our worlds have been turned upside down.”
So far, the chamber has not had to cut any staff. But if the virus and massive business closures stretch beyond the 30-day period, phase two of the chamber’s plan could mean a variety of cuts to chamber staff. Phase three would involve taking “bold steps.”
Cunningham says the stimulus bill will help get the economy moving again.
“It shows you that at least in a time of crisis, people can work together to get something done quickly in government,” he said. “There’s no doubt we will be in a recession. I think one advantage in the Lehigh Valley is we have that balance in the economy.”
The leader of one local manufacturer said he was optimistic about the bill but noted there is much uncertainty over how companies will reap the benefits.
“I am still optimistic of the benefits of the stimulus bill but the execution of it is very disheartening,” said George Reitz, president of American Millwork & Cabinetry, a manufacturer in Emmaus. “The CARES Act is good but I listed a boatload of questions to accounting and that led to more questions.”
These questions dealt with the timeline and semantics of how the bill would be executed, he said. In addition, he questioned whether $2 trillion would be enough for all the companies in the U.S.
Much of AMC’s job sites are shut down because of COVID-19, and that affects important parts of projects such as manufacturing, engineering and ordering, he said.
His company has 83 employees and after Wolf’s state-wide business closure order on March 19, his first inclination was to preserve cash, so he laid off about half of his workforce.
However, the company has projects in the health care industry, and was able to continue building. It obtained six exemptions, and Reitz has called back about 45 people, including some office and production workers who are practicing social distancing.
Since his company operates in the construction industry, he has seen uncertainty over what’s closed and what’s open throughout the state.
“Certain jobs are opening, certain jobs are not, it’s very stressful,” Reitz said.
He recalled a recent meeting with his employees, which appeared to reflect the mood of the moment.
“It was so solemn,” he said. “It’s like someone dropped a bomb on the U.S. It was eerie.
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