School lunch workers who have kept students fed during the pandemic will receive up to $2,000 each in bonus pay, the Education Department announced Friday after a senator questioned why the funds had not been distributed as dictated by legislation passed in September.
The compensation is made possible by federal funds received through the American Rescue Plan for work performed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the news release from the Education Department.
The onetime payments are being processed and are on schedule to be released to employees by Jan. 31, the release stated.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw issued a news release on Thursday evening, asking why the funds had not been disbursed by Dec. 31 as dictated by legislation that she sponsored, and the Senate passed in September that was then signed into law by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. as Act 8473.
“The bill … has not been fully executed, as some three months later, the money still has not been disbursed. In the height of the ongoing pandemic, the feeding initiative by the Department of Education saw service and school lunch workers providing breakfast and lunch to students attending public, private and parochial schools in the territory,” Sarauw said in her release.
“While many employees of the Department of Education undoubtedly tackled a myriad of adversities in the wake of the pandemic, with some having to navigate a new virtual world, service and school lunch workers of the ‘No Virgin Islands Child Goes Hungry’ feeding initiative remained physically on the frontline of the pandemic, providing service to our students, despite the potential risks to their own health and that of their families,” said Sarauw.
However, the department said its plan was already in place and supersedes local funding later made available through Bill No. 34-0082 (Act 8473) that called for only $1,000 in compensation to school lunch workers, according to its release.
Sarauw “was made aware, via testimony submitted to the Finance Committee for a hearing scheduled for Sept. 21, 2021, that the Bryan-Roach administration had plans underway to provide school lunch workers with a much more robust compensation package. As part of the administration’s plan, school lunch workers will receive compensation between $1,250 to $2,000, depending on their specific job title,” the department stated.
“The department was able to achieve this with federal funds, made available for this purpose, to compensate school lunch workers who kept the department running at the height of the pandemic,” said Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin. “Our school lunch workers who prepared nutritious meals for students are deserving of this compensation.”
Berry-Benjamin added that it was more financially prudent to tap into the large reserve of federal funds rather than to draw from the local government’s general fund.
“We have access to significant amounts of federal dollars in order to recover from the pandemic, so it made better sense for us to use these funds and increase the dollar amount to employees, rather than use our limited local funds,” she said. “We appreciate the efforts of the senator and will seek to reprogram the general fund for other purposes.”