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Romney calls for hazard pay for workers on the front line of the pandemic

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) at the Capitol in January. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Sen. Mitt Romney is proposing a plan to better compensate health-care workers, grocery store employees and other essential personnel working through the coronavirus pandemic as the issue of hazard pay becomes a growing flash point in the next round of emergency relief negotiations.

Romney (R-Utah), the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, wants to boost the pay of qualifying essential workers by up to $12 per hour for the next three months, a bonus that could be as much as $1,920 a month.

“This is a proposal which I think is fiscally responsible but also recognizes the additional risk that people are taking,” Romney said in a phone interview with The Washington Post on Friday.

He noted that an essential worker who earns less than $22 per hour may ultimately be paid less than someone earning unemployment benefits that were bolstered by Congress in recent virus rescue packages.

“That’s not fair, number one,” Romney said. “And number two, it would create an anomaly, of course, for people to be taking additional risk of their health and have someone else not working making more than they are.”

The idea of hazard pay — additional compensation for those on the front lines of the pandemic — has broad conceptual support in Washington, yet neither lawmakers nor the Trump administration addressed the issue in the economic and health relief bill, totaling nearly $3 trillion, passed thus far.

Pelosi points to $1 trillion need for state and local governments in next coronavirus bill

President Trump has spoken in general terms about providing additional pay to critical medical personnel, and the White House has indicated that the administration is working with Congress on doing so. Senate Democrats have released a plan, dubbed the “Heroes Fund,” that provides up to $25,000 per person for a broad category of essential personnel including not just health-care employees but also food workers and delivery drivers.

Romney’s proposal covers a similarly broad swath of workers. The Labor Department and Congress would determine what industries would be deemed “essential,” but they would include at a minimum hospitals, food distributors and manufacturers. Employers would have to prove that workers would be in conditions that increased their exposure to the coronavirus to qualify for the bonus.

Three-quarters of that additional money would be paid for by the federal government in the form of a refundable payroll tax credit, and the rest would be picked up by their employer. That pay boost would last from May 1 through July 31 under Romney’s plan.

Someone earning $50,000 or less per year would receive an additional $12 per hour, with the hourly increase gradually phased out as salaries increase. The maximum qualifying salary would be $90,000.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with a lengthy business background, has spoken to other GOP senators and said that while opinions may differ, the concept of hazard pay could be gaining traction among Republicans.

“It strikes me that we’re open to considering a wide array of opportunities to help people that are serving the public,” Romney said. “And a number of individuals have expressed an openness to considering different ideas.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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