Senate Democrats want to do more than thank workers on the frontlines in the battle against coronavirus -- they are proposing $25,000 federally backed raises for the intrepid employees.
Under a proposal rolled out Tuesday meant to be part of Congress's next major Covid-19 relief package, Schumer and other Democrats said that everyone from doctors and nurses to janitors and grocery store clerks should be paid extra for risking their lives to keep the nation running. The pot of money, which does not yet have a cost estimate, would be called the Heroes Fund.
"Not all heroes wear capes," Schumer said. "Some wear masks, some wear scrubs. These Americans are the true heroes of this pandemic, and we need to make sure they're taken care of."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said that while everyone hails the work being done, the people doing also deserve some cold, hard cash. "This is a crisis unlike any we've seen in our lifetimes, and how we deal with it says an enormous amount about who we are as a country," Murray said on a conference call with reporters. "So let's make sure to show our gratitude in a real way.
Schumer offered a similar sentiment, saying that while New Yorkers have shown their appreciation for the workers who cannot stay at home, Congress can dole out more tangible thanks.
"It warms my heart to open my window every 7 p.m. as all of New York City applauds our essential workers -- you can hear it from one end of the city to the other -- but they also deserve to be remunerated for this," Schumer said. The pay would be retroactive to the start of the national emergency declared on Jan. 27 to deal with the pandemic. Workers who have died from the virus would also have pay go to their families. Whether or not the proposal will make it into legislation remains to be seen, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was already talking up replenishing the emergency small business loan effort, the Paycheck Protection Program, which has already doled out billions. "It is quickly becoming clear that Congress will need to provide more funding or this crucial program may run dry. That cannot happen," McConnell said.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was seeking an additional $250 billion for the program. Schumer declined to say if he and Democrats would insist on attaching the Heroes Fund to the paycheck program, but did say it would be among the very highest priorities for Democrats. McConnell hopes to pass an expansion of the Paycheck Protection program by unanimous consent on Thursday, when the Senate is scheduled to hold a pro forma session. McConnell's office did not answer a question about whether the majority leader would back the proposal. Schumer's office said McConnell had not discussed it with Schumer.
Under the paycheck program, the federal government backs loans from banks to small businesses. The loans will be forgiven if they are used for pay any expenses required to keep shuttered small firms afloat. The Heroes Fund would funnel federal dollars to employees through businesses, although Schumer said large corporations would have to pay their own ways. Democrats also want to include $15,000 incentive checks in their proposal to induce more people to sign up for frontline medical jobs, such as nursing.
An outline of the Democrats' proposal is here, and below:
Senate Democrats’ Proposal for Pandemic Premium Pay to Reward, Retain, & Recruit Essential Workers
Essential frontline workers are the true heroes of America’s COVID-19 pandemic response. Senate Democrats believe in providing premium pay to frontline workers during this pandemic to reward essential frontline workers, ensure the retention of essential workers who are working grueling hours on the frontlines of this crisis, and promote the recruitment of additional workers who will be needed in the months ahead.
As the Congress looks at a potential fourth COVID-19 bill, the following proposal is meant for consideration by Members of Congress, key stakeholders, and the American people. Our proposal consists of two major components:
A $25,000 pandemic premium pay increase for essential frontline workers, equivalent to a raise of an additional $13 per hour from the start of the public health emergency until December 31, 2020.
A $15,000 recruitment incentive for health and home care workers and first responders to attract and secure the workforce needed to fight the public health crisis.
Structure of the Pandemic Premium Pay
To meet the goals of reward, retention, and recruitment, we propose a set dollar amount per hour with a maximum amount for the year, for a definite duration, and with an additional bonus for workers who sign up to do such essential work during this crisis.
Amount of Pay Premium. Our proposal—
Uses a flat-dollar amount per hour premium model in order to ensure it is clear, simple, and lifts up particularly those workers making lower wages.
Would give each essential frontline worker $13/hour premium pay on top of regular wages for all hours worked in essential industries through the end of 2020.
Would cap the total maximum premium pay at $25,000 for each essential frontline worker earning less than $200,000 per year and $5,000 for each essential worker earning $200,000 or more per year.
Duration of Premium. The premium pay period—
Must be for a specified and clear duration of time to ensure workers can rely on it for their economic security and plan for needs like additional child care.
Should cover all hours worked by each essential frontline worker through December 31, 2020, or until the worker’s salary-based maximum premium pay is reached.
Premium Pay as a Recruitment and Retention Incentive. In order to recruit the additional health care workers, home care workers, and first responders needed over the coming months, our proposal—
Would provide a one-time $15,000 premium for signing on to do essential work.
Would limit eligibility for this incentive premium to essential health and home care workers and first responders that are experiencing severe staffing shortages impeding the ability to provide care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premium Pay and Worker Incentives Delivery Mechanism
Our proposal would fully federally-fund the premium pay and recruitment and retention incentive. We will continue to seek input on the specific mechanism for delivering the pay to workers, as well as the universe of “essential workers” to be covered. The new federal fund would partner with entities designated as an “eligible employer” – states, localities, tribes, and certain private sector employers – to issue the funds premium payments to eligible workers. Frontline federal employees would also be granted the new benefit of up to $25,000.
COVID-19 Heroes Fund. The new COVID-19 Heroes Fund would provide funds directly to eligible employer-partners so that they could distribute the premium payments.
Employers in industries engaged in “essential work” would apply to the Heroes Fund for funds to be used to add line-item premium pay to employees’ or independent contractors’ paychecks. The eligible employer would track these payments, provide payroll records demonstrating premium payments, and return any unspent funds to the agency.
No employer would be required to participate, but all would be strongly encouraged to and the program would be widely advertised.
An entity that contracts directly with the state, locality, Tribe, or the federal government (e.g., to provide care to people with Medicare and Medicaid coverage) would be considered a private sector employer, and employees of this entity who are designated as “essential” would be eligible for premium pay. Similarly, an eligible employer is also an individual who hires someone designated as “essential” through programs established through the State (e.g., self-directed care arrangements). This would help ensure coverage of the 2.2 million home health aides, direct service providers, and personal care workers who provide services to more than 12 million Americans.
Eligible employers would submit applications for the recruitment and retention incentive premium on a rolling basis.
Federal Workforce. Our proposal would ensure all federal government essential frontline employees receive the same $25,000 premium pay benefit provided to other essential workers.
Coverage should be expansive to capture all federal employees with public-facing positions. This includes Title 5 employees and employees of all other federal personnel systems (e.g., employees of the Postal Service, TSA, VA, FAA, District of Columbia, and federally-funded Indian programs).
The benefit would be limited to frontline and public-facing positions – employees who are not teleworking from their homes.
Additional Background and Commentary
Precedents. Disasters require exceptional flexibility in standard work schedules and assignments and often put first responders and other essential workers in dangerous situations. To ensure this critical workforce is compensated appropriately, there are precedents for funding hazard premium pay and worker incentives through a federal program.
FEMA, through the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Response and Emergency Assistance Act and the Disaster Relief Fund, is currently authorized to reimburse state, local, and tribal governments for straight-time and premium pay associated with disaster response. Extraordinary costs (such as call-back pay, night-time or weekend differential pay, and hazardous duty pay) for essential employees who are called back to duty during administrative leave to perform eligible Emergency Work are eligible for reimbursement in certain circumstances.
This authority has been used many times over the last few years to pay for personnel costs associated with enforcing curfews, facilitating evacuation routes, and restoring critical infrastructure. Past usage illustrates precedent for federal funding of critical state, local, and tribal employees performing essential response functions that keep our communities safe in times of disaster.
Essential Frontline Worker definitions. As mentioned above, the definition of essential frontline workers for purposes of both the premium pay increase and the recruitment-retention incentive will be the subject of debate. This proposal is not meant to exclude any worker from this conversation. Rather, we hope this proposal will encourage a discussion about how large and diverse this universe of workers truly is. Our goal is to make federal, state, tribal, local and private sector essential workers that are at risk eligible for this benefit.
Retroactive Pay. Workers who have been on the frontlines since the initial declaration of the Public Health Emergency on January 27, 2020, could receive a lump sum of backpay of $13 per hour for work before enactment. These workers would continue to receive the $13 per hour premium pay on top of regular wages moving forward, but these workers would still be subject to the maximum premium pay cap outlined above.
Additional Benefits for Essential Health and Home Care Workers and First Responders. The employers of frontline health and home care workers and first responders should be eligible to apply for a second round of premium pay funds of up to $10,000 as those workers continue to combat the virus.
Death Benefits. It is a deeply disturbing but unfortunate reality that some of our frontline workers are making the ultimate sacrifice to the nation through their work fighting COVID-19. Their families rightfully deserve to receive the full amount of the premium pay as a lump sum in addition to all other forms of death benefits.
Protections from Corporate Expense Shifting. Certain large corporations engaged in the provision of essential services and goods employ essential frontline workers who are deserving of premium pay. However, massive corporations should make investments in providing premium pay of their own accord before trying to participate in this program.
Protecting Workers and PPE. Senate Democrats have been fighting to give essential workers the protections and equipment they need to stay safe. The CARES Act provided billions of dollars for PPE, and Democrats have pushed the Administration to appoint a czar to handle all manufacturing and distribution of critical PPE. We must do more to ensure all frontline workers have the protective gear they need to perform their jobs safely, and we need a strong emergency temporary standard to protect all workers.