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Essential workers deserve hazard pay, so where are we with that?



“…it’s our lower paid janitors, people in grocery stores, mom and pop shops on the corner, bodegas, that have stayed open to keep this country fed and healthy. So why shouldn’t they be compensated?

On Wednesday, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, in answer to a question from reporter Bill Bartholomew, said that hazard pay for essential, frontline workers “is not something I’m considering.”

Instead, she is counting on the federal government and Rhode Island’s federal delegation to deliver some form of hazard pay in the next round of stimulus.

“I have been assured, as recently as [Tuesday] that in the next round of Federal stimulus that sort of hazard pay is very much on the table,” said Raimondo, adding the she would support such funding.

But then Governor Raimondo went on to separate frontline essential workers into two groups – healthcare workers, who are more deserving of hazard pay, and customer facing workers such as store clerks, janitors, delivery workers and more, who are not as deserving.

“I think it’s a bigger issue for healthcare workers. It’s a much bigger issue,” said Raimondo. “I’m open to [hazard pay], if the Federal government provides the finances. I am more focused on those sorts of bonuses for those people who are in the health care industry, who are daily in close contact with people who are sick.”

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Who are our frontline workers? The United States Department of Homeland Security released a memorandum defining “essential critical infrastructure workers.” The definition is quite exhaustive, and it does include your local grocery store clerk, not just healthcare workers.

When we look at where hazard pay stands in Washington, it’s definitely on the table, but its future is uncertain. As early as April 10 Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed supported the “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” that would “give essential workers who have been on the job during the 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.” That bill hasn’t proceeded far yet, but some form could still possibly pass.

This week, the House passed the Heroes Act, which allots $200 billion for “essential critical infrastructure workers” to receive hazard pay. That bill, as it stands, is unlikely to make it through the Senate intact, so some form of hazard pay is again, far from certain. Note that neither the Senate or the House proposal makes the strong demarcation between health care workers and other essential workers that Governor Raimondo has. After all, healthcare workers have to eat, so grocery stores need to remain open.

“A lot of the people that are still working have no choice but to work and also are in essential positions,” said Representative Donald Payne (Democrat, New Jersey), speaking during a press conference in support of the Heroes Act. “So it’s our lower paid janitors, people in grocery stores, mom and pop shops on the corner, bodegas, that have stayed open to keep this country fed and healthy. So why shouldn’t they be compensated?

“These workers will get an extra $13 per hour if the bill is passed,” continued Payne. “That could make a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. These are grocery store clerks, bus drivers and child day care workers who are on the job daily, and they need to be rewarded for that.”

Here’s Representative David Cicilline (Democrat, Rhode Island)’s recent press conference in support of the Heroes Act.