PA Auditor General calls Wolf Admin’s waiver process for business shutdowns ‘flawed’, inconsistent

Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Pennsylvania Auditor General Timothy L. Defoor released an audit Tuesday, criticizing the Wolf Administration’s waiver process for businesses that wished to remain open early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report called the administration’s process “flawed,” adding it provided inconsistent answers to business owners causing confusion.

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“While the pandemic certainly presented some unique challenges, the process was hastily assembled on the fly, unevenly administered, and should be reformed before anything like it is ever used again.”

Back in March of 2020, Governor Wolf ordered Pennsylvania businesses that were not categorized as “life-sustaining” to close in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Under the waiver program, businesses could apply for a waiver from the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to stay open.

But according to Defoor, a number of business owners and legislators complained that the waiver process lacked transparency and provided inconsistent or changing answers. The Auditor-General himself now calls the process flawed, non-transparent and unevenly administered. “I think it verifies what a lot of us already knew that it was a complete cluster, the entire process, and it was completely unfair to our local businesses,” State Representative Brad Roae said (R-Crawford, Erie) said.

More than 42,000 applied for waivers. About seven thousand were granted. But a third of them were unnecessary showing the confusion in the business community. The auditor general doesn’t know how many closed for good, but certainly, some did. “A lot of people were forced to watch their dreams die, to watch their life’s work get washed away for nothing and that cannot be allowed to stand,” President of the Pa. Manufacturer’s Association, David Taylor said.

DeFoor says the administration’s definition of a “life-sustaining” business was changed at least nine times and a “frequently asked questions” document intended to guide businesses, was revised 14 times, ultimately contributing to the confusion.

Another major finding in the report states, “questionable decisions by DCED for certain waiver requests potentially resulted in detrimental effects for businesses and an unnecessarily increased risk to public health.”

It’s unclear what recourse harmed businesses may have and unclear who was deciding what businesses could stay open. DeFoor said the department acted in good faith but added, “For business entities that would use, let’s say a lobbyist or contact a legislator, they got quicker answers to their questions,” Auditor General Tim DeFoor said.

In a statement, DCED said employees worked around the clock to implement a new program during an unprecedented pandemic. Adding “It cannot be overstated how much this team of reviewers redefined what it means to be public servants.”

That’s one take. Here’s the auditor general’s. “This process should be reformed before anything like this is ever used again,” DeFoor said.

It’s important to note that the Wolf Administration chose to create its own waiver process even though the feds had their own standards for what’s essential and what’s not. Most states followed those guidelines.

In response to its findings, the PA Department of the Auditor General says the Governor’s Office should reevaluate its process for determining life-sustaining and non-life-sustaining industry groups, attempt to limit the number of changes made to the operating guidance, and have all decisions reviewed and approved by a second reviewer prior to responses being issued.

To read the full report, click here.

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