Democratic senators unveiled a plan Tuesday to provide front-line workers with hazard pay during the pandemic, arguing that the dangers of the coronavirus call for higher wages.
“We are asking these workers to take on great risk. They should be compensated for it,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on a call with reporters.
The Democratic proposal would apply not just to health care workers battling the virus but to many others considered to be essential: grocery store clerks, bus drivers, truck drivers, pharmacists, sanitation workers and others.
Eligible workers would get a boost of $13 per hour on top of their normal wages, retroactive to the start of the pandemic and through the end of this year. The premium would be capped at $25,000 for those earning below $200,000 per year and at $5,000 for those earning more.
The plan also includes a one-time incentive payment of $15,000 for new employees who sign on to work in health care, home care and emergency response during the pandemic.
A white paper released by Democrats said the federal government would fully fund both the hazard pay and incentive payments, though it did not include a cost estimate for the program. The document noted that the full universe of essential workers eligible under the plan hadn’t been determined yet.
Schumer said the hazard pay plan, which he dubbed a “Heroes Fund,” is one of the “very highest priorities” that Democrats want to see in the next phase of coronavirus stimulus legislation.
“For these Americans, working at home is not an option. Social distancing is not an option,” he said. “They are in the line of fire day in and day out.”
A hazard pay premium has become a rallying cry for workers still clocking in during the pandemic. Many people have already been infected or died from the coronavirus likely contracted through their jobs, from doctors and nurses to retail employees. Some grocery store chains have added a $2 premium to hourly pay but many workers say the increase is insufficient given the dangers.
“Whether they’re grocery store workers or postal workers or sanitation workers or more, they’re keeping our country operational in this greatest time of need,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “And of course our health care workers and first responders deserve a special debt of gratitude.”
Hazard pay is just one proposal that Democrats are discussing as part of a fourth coronavirus relief bill, expected to advance later this month. Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for additional billions of dollars in assistance to small businesses that are struggling amid the crisis.
The $2.2 trillion rescue package that Congress passed last month included $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses, but that money is quickly running out. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he hoped to get unanimous agreement to replenish the fund with another $250 billion later this week.
It’s unclear, however, if Democrats will quickly assent to the new funds without a commitment on hazard pay for essential workers in the next round of negotiations. McConnell and Schumer had not yet discussed the matter on Tuesday, according to a Schumer spokesman.
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