Four months into the coronavirus pandemic, the only curve the U.S. has managed to flatten is wage growth for essential workers.
Many front-line employees in grocery stores and other essential businesses received hazard pay increases at the start of the crisis. But most of those temporary pay bumps have since been phased out, which effectively amounts to a pay cut for many workers amid a record-setting surge in COVID-19 cases. And most workers in hospitals and other health care facilities never received any additional pay at all, despite being hailed as “heroes” by politicians.
Meanwhile, Congress has not approved a plan for federally funded hazard pay that would boost wages for nurses, bus drivers, retail clerks and others who were asked to continue working through the pandemic. The lack of a pay bump struck many essential workers as particularly unfair in light of expanded unemployment benefits that paid laid-off workers more than the typical low-wage job.
House Democrats included a hazard pay measure in a stimulus package they passed in May, but it has not been taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Now that many nonessential workers are clocking in again during the public health crisis, it may be even more difficult for Democrats to secure a pool of federal funds for front-line workers in health care and other essential fields.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the lead boosters of the plan, said Friday that he doesn’t believe the window has closed. It’s still a Democratic priority, even as Congress wrangles over a host of other issues, Brown told reporters on a call hosted by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
“We will continue to insist on that,” the senator said of the hazard pay. “I think we draw a line there to say this is essential in the legislation we’re pushing for in these negotiations. It’s absolutely something we want to insist on.”
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “doesn’t feel any urgency to do anything,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on the same call.
“Grocery workers and all essential workers deserve premium pay,” she said. “I mean serious, robust hazard pay.”
A spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said hazard pay “remains a priority” for the Democrats. But it’s part of a long wish list related to coronavirus funding — which includes getting federal aid to cities and states, sending out additional stimulus checks, extending the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits, passing a new moratorium on evictions, and securing funding for the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service.
The HEROES Act, which passed in the House in May, would provide $200 billion for hazard pay. Workers in qualifying jobs would receive an additional $13 per hour for their work during the pandemic, on top of the normal wages paid by their employers. The payout would be capped at $10,000 for most people.
The legislation includes a host of coronavirus relief measures, such as housing assistance and additional stimulus checks, and enjoys broad support from voters in polling.
Assuming the Senate can pass another stimulus bill for the pandemic, its plan would need to be reconciled with the House bill. A spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to say where hazard pay lands on her list of priorities.
“Heroes is our position,” he said in an email, referring to the House bill. “Not going to negotiate with press.”
There has been very little Republican support for federally funded hazard pay, and McConnell and other GOP senators have said they are reluctant to shovel more money into alleviating the economic effects of the pandemic. Instead, McConnell is forcefully pushing a liability shield for employers, which would prevent workers from suing if they get sick on the job and diminish their leverage even more.
A spokesman for McConnell did not respond to a request for comment on hazard pay.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) appears to be the only Republican senator voicing support for hazard pay, having rolled out his own plan in early May. Romney proposed an extra $12 per hour for essential workers, which would last three months.
Without government-funded hazard pay, workers have been left to hope their employers will kick them something a little extra voluntarily. For grocery store and meatpacking workers, that was usually an additional $1 or $2 per hour, or a one-time bonus worth a few hundred bucks. But most chains that were offering that money appear to have stopped doing so in June or July.
UFCW President Marc Perrone called on Kroger and other grocery chains to reinstitute those pay premiums, noting the rising COVID-19 case numbers in many states. Kroger ended its $2-per-hour increase in May.
“Now they act as though there’s no need for workers to receive that pay, even though there are obvious risks,” Perrone said Friday. “Why? Did the pandemic go away? Did the risk that [workers] face every day go away?”
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