Paul Muschick: Wolf’s pandemic corporate waiver program was even worse than we thought

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We now know why Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration initially refused to explain why some companies were granted waivers to stay open at the start of the pandemic while others were forced to close.

The waiver program was so poorly managed that it did not always have answers to provide.

An audit released this week by state auditor general Timothy DeFoor found that decision-making lacked accountability; was not always appropriate; and, unfortunately, was inconsistent.

It hurts business owners by depriving them of income. And at times it has failed in its mission to protect the public from possible exposure to covid-19, DeFoor said.

I didn’t expect the audit to be favorable, due to the backlash from the program created in March 2020 after the Wolf administration ordered the shutdown of non-“life-saving” businesses.

The results were even more dismal than I expected.

The Ministry of Economic and Community Development, which managed the program, did not agree with all of the findings. He noted that the program has grown rapidly, under unprecedented conditions that have changed rapidly. He said changes have been made to the program as it has progressed to improve it.

The program has certainly worked under difficult circumstances. But as DeFoor said, when livelihoods were at stake, the state had an obligation to ensure a level playing field. And the audit raises a lot of doubts.

The exemption program required businesses that were not in industries considered to be “life supporting” to apply for permission to open. They had to prove that their operations met these criteria.

The program was immediately criticized for dealing with an application from Wolf’s former cabinetmaking company, Wolf Home Products. He was granted a waiver, which was later canceled.

The audit concluded that the decisions were not influenced by politics. But he said candidates who sought help from state lawmakers may have pushed their requests to the top of the pile.

The Auditor General reviewed a sample of 150 exemption requests out of 42,380 that were submitted.

Responses to 103 requests seemed reasonable. Auditors queried responses to 45 requests. Two did not appear to have received a response.

A company that appeared to sell frames, because of its name and website, was initially told it couldn’t open. This decision was later overturned because the company indicated that it was part of the “woodworking” industry, which was allowed to operate without exemption.

A greenhouse that requested to be opened only for delivery and pickup was initially told it did not need a waiver as it was already licensed to offer these services. He was later told that he could not provide the services requested. The Auditor General said it should have been allowed to remain open for delivery only, but this limitation was not explained.

A massage company was initially granted a waiver to open because it was considered “supported by life”. That decision was overturned two days later after another massage company questioned it.

“The results of some of these questionable responses have had real negative consequences for businesses that should have been able to operate, but were told they had to shut down,” said DeFoor, a Republican who took office. this year and completed the audit started. by his predecessor, Democrat Eugène DePasquale.

The Department of Economic and Community Development acknowledged that different answers might have been appropriate in some of the cases in question. But he said that doesn’t mean the initial decisions were incorrect at the time.

The Auditor General found that inconsistent decisions were made for similar companies within the same industry. The reviews were “very subjective and heavily dependent on the wording used”. Those who mentioned “health workers” sometimes got a favorable response.

The Ministry of Economic and Community Development disagreed, saying “the most apparent inconsistencies were based more on perception than reality.” The decisions were based on information provided by companies, which was not always consistent, he said.

The audit found that correspondence with companies regarding decisions on their claims was insufficient and confusing.

When requests were denied, this decision only applied to the activity requested on the waiver form. These companies were allowed to carry on other activities which automatically qualify as life-sustaining. But businesses may have been confused by the language of the rejection letter and shut down entirely, auditors said.

The waiver approval letters and letters sent to companies that could operate without waivers did not specify that only life-sustaining operations were permitted. Other services were prohibited, but the owners may have thought they could open their entire operation.

The Auditor General’s office struggled to analyze specific decisions because staff who decided on exemption requests and other staff who reviewed those decisions were not required to explain in writing the rationale for their decision. decision or any modification of an original decision.

The justifications were sometimes included in a notes field in a database. But the lack of information, including on the employees who made the decisions, prevented the Auditor General from drawing conclusions about the process.

Some companies got answers during the day. Others took almost a month. The average response time was 5.7 days. The process was slowed down because some companies submitted multiple requests, which added to the workload.

With the economy completely open again, some may wonder why there is a need to revisit this now.

It is always important to hold government accountable for decisions that impact lives. And while I pray that there will never be another pandemic like this, if there were any, the mistakes made here need to be identified so that they will not be repeated.

Paul Muschick is a columnist for The Morning Call of Allentown (paul.muschickmcall.com)

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