“If anybody’s entitled to it, they are,” Trump told Fox News on March 30 when asked about proposals to give “hazard pay” to front-line medical personnel. “These are really brave people. Actually, they are warriors, in a sense.”
But a proposal to offer such aid has not been seriously considered during negotiations over any of the four bills approved by Congress to respond to the novel coronavirus, according to a half-dozen congressional aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, including the $484 billion bill passed last week.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said negotiations with Congress continue. A White House statement noted that billions of dollars have been approved for hospitals, which could help pay worker bonuses, among a variety of other expenses. There’s no evidence yet hospitals are doing that. The White House did not respond when asked whether Trump has taken any action to pursue hazard pay specifically for medical workers.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has released a proposal for a “Heroes Fund” that would give up to $25,000 per person for a broad category of front-line workers including doctors and nurses — as well as other essential personnel such as grocery workers and delivery drivers. The White House declined to comment on Schumer’s proposal.
“President Trump is already working with Congress to ensure these brave men and women are properly compensated for their incredible work,” Deere said in a statement.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has also said he hopes to see hazard pay included the next aid package. Congressional aides caution it could be weeks before such a measure is approved.
More than 45 nurses in the United States have died of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, while at least a half-dozen doctors have died in states including Arizona, Michigan, Florida and New York.
Instead of hiking salaries for medical workers, numerous hospitals across the country have slashed pay for nurses and doctors, as the suspension of elective surgeries drains health-care companies of a vital source of revenue. Health-care systems in California, Maine, Minnesota and Colorado have all announced pay cuts or furloughs to their employees. Stanford Health Care announced pay cuts this week of up to 20 percent for roughly 14,000 health-care workers, including personnel responding to the coronavirus.
Concerns about compensation for medical workers go beyond additional hazard pay. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that Congress passed in March specifically excludes health-care companies and firms with more than 500 employees from having to give two weeks of paid sick leave.
Nursing homes have been a telling example of a critical part of the health system where workers are getting little to no extra pay during the crisis and often lack paid sick leave. One in six nursing homes have reported coronavirus cases so far.
Workers at several nursing homes told The Washington Post that they have to use their “PTO” — paid time off for both illness and vacation — if they get sick. Often, they have only a few days of PTO, which is far less than the two weeks typically recommended for quarantining. Nursing homes employ 1.6 million people, and the median pay is $15 an hour, according to the Labor Department.
In total, up to 13 million health workers and other emergency responders, including some nurses and hospital cleaning employees, won’t get two weeks of emergency sick pay because of the way Congress wrote the law, according to Labor Department estimates.
Front-line workers say extra hazard wages or sick pay could make a big difference for them. Delma Garza, a nurse at a long-term-care facility in Texas, said she was instructed to stay home for the first two weeks of April because she had been exposed to another worker who tested positive for the coronavirus at the facility. But Garza said she was not paid during her quarantine.
“That makes it hard,” said Garza, 42. “The bills are still piling up. If I don’t pay rent, I’m afraid we’ll get evicted. It’s $960 for rent.”
Garza also helps transport patients from hospitals to the care facility, another risky job right now. She returned to work after not showing any symptoms during quarantine, but she is so worried about being a carrier of the virus that she sent her grandchild to live with someone else.
David Saucedo, 52, a cook at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner for patients despite fearing he will bring the virus from a patient to his partner, who has asthma. Saucedo received hazard pay while deployed during the first Gulf War and says the conditions he is working in now are no less dangerous.
“During the war, we would get paid extra money — hazard and duty pay — when we were put in danger,” he said. “People like me are spending a lot of their own money just cleaning our uniforms every day to not get people sick."
Despite Trump’s apparent support, congressional Republicans could prove an obstacle to increasing emergency pay for front-line workers.
The issue has not been at the forefront of discussions among Republican lawmakers, according to interviews with four GOP congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. GOP officials view Schumer’s proposal as overly broad and are likely to voice concerns about its price tag, the aides said.
“Politically, it’s hard to oppose, but there will be concerns: ‘How big is it? What is the universe of workers?’ And some doctors and nurses are already well-paid,” said one senior Republican aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe likely caucus thinking on the matter.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment on whether he supports Schumer’s proposal or efforts to provide hazard pay to front-line workers.
During negotiations in March, Senate Republicans objected to a plan by Democrats to require Trump to increase by 25 percent the pay for federal front-line workers, such as FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers personnel, according to two people familiar with the matter. A Republican Senate aide disputed that account, saying the measure was not proposed until after passage of the $2 trillion Cares Act.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chair of the government affairs committee, does not support giving special benefits to federal employees, according to a spokesman, who also denied that Johnson blocked the measure in negotiations.
The lack of emergency pay is one of several ways in which front-line workers beyond the medical profession say recent moves to help the country have left them out.
There are about 50 million “essential” employees still going to their workplaces daily and facing exposure to the coronavirus, according to the Brookings Institution. Many earn less than $18 an hour despite putting themselves and their families at risk. Some companies like Costco, Target, Amazon and Safeway are paying an extra $2 an hour in “appreciation pay” during the pandemic, but policies vary widely.
At least 17 meatpacking workers and dozens of grocery store employees and delivery drivers across the nation have died of the coronavirus, according to data from unions and news reports.
“It is an outrage we are asking millions of workers to continue to show up to their jobs for the rest of us at a risk to their own lives, while paying them wages too low to even sustain a family,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at Brookings. “It’s been weeks of praise and platitudes from leaders out of Washington about these ‘heroes on the front lines,’ but they have done absolutely nothing to provide them with adequate compensation.”
When Congress mandated that most companies provide at least two weeks of paid sick leave for employees who are exposed to the coronavirus or are advised to stay home by a medical professional, the final bill excluded people working for a “health-care provider” or “emergency responder.” The Labor Department got to define what constitutes a “health-care provider,” and the definition is so broad it can include janitors working at a hospital for third-party companies, said Tanya L. Goldman, an attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy. The New York attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Labor Department to try to scale back the definition.
About 2 million grocery store workers, half a million pharmacy workers and nearly a million truckers and transport drivers also don’t have access to paid sick leave, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of government data. Because these workers are at companies with over 500 employees, they are not eligible for emergency paid leave under the new law.
A Gallup survey of U.S. workers in March found that 40 percent of transportation employees and nearly a third of health-care personnel said they do not get any paid sick leave. On a call with reporters Thursday, Labor Department officials said they had rapidly implemented the new benefit for millions of workers after closely consulting with “stakeholders” across the country.
Many grocery stores like Safeway say they will pay if their workers get sick, but employees must have a confirmed test, which has been hard to obtain in many parts of the country for all but the worst cases. Only 8 percent of workers in grocery, retail and food service jobs have access to two weeks of paid sick time, according to a study of 30,000 workers by the Shift Project.
Still, Trump has continued to celebrate the work of doctors and nurses in his coronavirus briefings.
“Through it all, we have seen the heroism of our doctors and nurses like never before. These are our warriors. The bravery of our truck drivers, such bravery, and food suppliers,” Trump said at a White House news conference last week. “Such incredible bravery.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.