PROVIDENCE, RI – U.S. Senator Jack Reed is teaming up with several colleagues on a new proposal to give essential workers who have been on the job during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic a $25,000 hazard pay increase, the equivalent of an additional $13 an hour from the start of the public health emergency through December 31, 2020. 

Senator Reed says he wants to include federal funds in a future coronavirus economic rescue package to help compensate: nurses, pharmacists, grocery store workers, delivery people and letter carriers, cleaning staff, public workers, and other unsung heroes who’ve been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, risking their well-being to serve people in their communities.

“We really depend on frontline workers who do so much for so many.  From nurses providing care, to pharmacists filling our prescriptions, to grocery clerks stocking shelves and working the register, and all the delivery people and others in public-facing occupations we say thank you.  And it is important to show we value the hard work of ‘essential workers,’ not just with words, but action.  They faithfully reported for duty and deserve to be fairly compensated,” said Senator Reed.  “At a critical time, these truly essential employees have made a world of difference by taking on risk, in order to serve the public.  Young and old, they kept our economy going.  Some of our lowest paid workers are big community heroes and they deserve to receive a fair wage for stepping up and putting in long, hazardous hours.  We rely on them and want them to stay safe and healthy, and earn a living wage.” 

Senator Reed is joining Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in backing a “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” to provide pandemic premium pay to reward, retain, and recruit essential workers.  The proposal consists of two key components: a $25,000 hazard pay increase for essential healthcare workers and service industry workers, which would equate to a raise of $13 per hour from the start of the public health emergency until December 31, 2020; and a $15,000 essential worker recruitment incentive to help attract and secure the workforce needed in Rhode Island and across the country to combat COVID-19. 

Under the new “Heroes Fund,” the federal government would fund 100 percent of the premium pay and recruitment and retention incentive to help support ‘essential,’ public-facing, frontline workers. 

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. grocery cashiers made a median wage of $10.78 per hour in 2018.  Reed says with the advent of COVID-19, that is not nearly enough.

“The folks working at grocery stores need to be able to afford their own groceries too.  And this proposal will help ensure they can take care of themselves and their families while they continue performing essential, and what has become hazardous, work,” said Reed.

In order to meet the goals of reward, retention, and recruitment, the Senators are proposing a fixed dollar amount per hour ($13) with a maximum amount for the year ($25,000), for a definite duration, and with an additional bonus for workers who sign up to do such essential work during this crisis.

Using a flat-dollar amount per hour premium model will help ensure the program is straightforward, simple, and benefits lower-wage workers. 

The COVID-19 “Heroes Fund” would:

  • Provide each essential frontline worker the equivalent of $13 per hour premium pay on top of regular wages for all hours worked in essential industries from the start of the public health emergency until December 31, 2020.
  • 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.
  • Offer a $15,000 recruitment ‘signing bonus’ incentive for health and home care workers and first responders to help attract and secure the workforce needed to fight the public health crisis.  This portion of the bill would only apply to health care employees and first responders, not all essential frontline workers.

Again, the “Heroes Fund” would be fully federally-funded for premium pay and recruitment and retention incentives.  In order to deliver federal funds to pay workers, a voluntary public-private partnership would be established to allow employers in industries engaged in “essential work” to 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 federal agency overseeing the program.  Employers would not be required to participate, would be incentivized to do so and the program would be widely advertised.

To be eligible, workers who were deemed essential during the public health crisis would have to be employed by a private sector company participating in the program or for entities that contract directly with state, local, and tribal governments and deemed essential.  The Senators also plan to include a provision to provide benefits to the families of essential workers who have died as a result of COVID-19.

Reed says for Rhode Island workers who were deemed essential employees, the pay increase should be retroactive to March 9, 2020, the day Governor Gina M. Raimondo declared a state of emergency due to the dangers to health and life posed by COVID-19.

The COVID-19 “Heroes Fund” has precedent: Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Response and Emergency Assistance Act, which President Donald Trump has invoked for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may reimburse state and local governments for premium pay and other extraordinary costs associated with disaster response.  These pandemic premium payments differ from hazardous duty pay, which, under current law, grant federal employees exposed to “virulent biologicals” as part of their direct job duties a pay bump worth 25 percent of their normal salaries.

In addition to Senators Schumer and Reed, the plan is also backed by U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Gary Peters (D-MI).

No new legislation may be formally introduced in the U.S. Senate until Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calls the U.S. Senate back into session, which is expected later this month.