Such plaudits, though presumably welcome, haven’t shielded these pandemic “warriors” from growing ill and dying in staggering numbers.
The United States owes these workers more.
Those around the country taking on great risk so that the rest of us can stay home should be compensated for that risk. Yet home health aides can make as little as $9 an hour for the privilege of exposing themselves to a deadly disease.
Some companies have offered hazard or premium pay to essential workers. Big employers such as Target, Kroger and Campbell Soup Co. have given temporary raises, about $2 per hour. Others have offered one-time bonuses, generally $150 to $500.
Such top-ups seem meager relative to the risk.
To be fair, it may be difficult for firms to offer more generous raises under current conditions. Even mega-retailers experiencing huge demand for groceries and other staples are hurting because purchases of higher-margin, discretionary items, such as clothes, have plunged. Anti-price-gouging laws and customer price sensitivity also restrict their ability to charge more for those in-demand basics. And other non-labor expenses, for cleaning and logistics, are up. In other words, even companies best positioned to make money during this crisis may experience lower profits.
Still, the federal government could help make sure essential workers get paid what they deserve.
Last month, Senate Democrats proposed a “Heroes Fund” to raise the wages of certain categories of workers as much as $13 per hour through the end of the year. Details for how that money would be delivered to employees are still being worked out. Experiences thus far with the Paycheck Protection Program, expanded unemployment benefits and direct payments to households reveal that virtually every method for getting money out quickly is rife with major challenges.
On Friday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) offered a framework for “Patriot Pay,” a somewhat more limited plan. Romney’s proposal would give workers a temporary bonus of up to $12 per hour — with phaseouts for higher-income workers — in May, June and July. Companies would be required to kick in a quarter of the value of the bonus, with the remaining three-quarters reimbursed via a refundable payroll tax credit.
Romney’s office says employers could submit a streamlined claim to the IRS, piggybacking off the recently created system to advance paid-leave tax credits. Payroll companies might be able to advance the credit, too, so that cash-strapped firms spend less time floating the costs of these raises.
While we should have reservations about any plan that gives the Trump administration substantial discretion over which workers might be deemed “essential,” this is nonetheless a promising, thoughtful proposal. Romney’s fellow Republicans should take it seriously.
After all, raising pay for front-line workers could allay conservatives’ concerns about more generous (but economically necessary) unemployment benefits disincentivizing work, especially for people in more dangerous jobs.
Moreover, raising living standards might also help reduce covid-19 infections.
Some front-line workers are at greater risk of sickness, or infecting their loved ones, not only because of their jobs per se but also because of the limited transportation and living conditions they can afford. Commuting in packed public transportation, and living in tight quarters among multiple generations (some of whom may include newly laid-off family members), also increase infection risks, as the Brookings Institution’s Molly Kinder has noted.
That said, paying essential workers more would not absolve the federal government of responsibility to make their work safer.
It would be impossible to eliminate the risk of workplace infection, especially given how little is known about coronavirus transmission. But there are steps regulators could take to at least mitigate the danger. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been largely M.I.A. during the crisis, leaving it up to employers and states to decide whether, say, grocery workers ought to wear masks.
“OSHA has issued some vague guidelines and a poster,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official now at the National Employment Law Project. “For the first time in 50 years, it’s left workers on their own to protect themselves.”
Essential workers deserve our gratitude, yes. But more importantly they deserve livelihoods, and to live.