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Support hazard pay for essential workers

The Hlinko family in Islip colored their fence

The Hlinko family in Islip colored their fence to thank essential workers like nurses and doctors. Democrats are proposing that Congress provide additional hazard pay for Americans engaged in essential work during the pandemic. Credit: Brynn Hlinko

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At a group home for the developmentally disabled in Bayville, caregivers work around the clock to care for 46 residents in quarantine, many of whom cannot normally take care of themselves. As of last week, 37 of the residents tested positive for COVID-19, three had passed away, and nearly half the staff had tested positive as well.

Many of the caregivers work extra hours at tremendous risk for little more than minimum wage. If you drive by the center, the sign at the front says: “Heroes Work Here.”

This example is not unique. Across Long Island, New York and the country, thousands of Americans place themselves in danger by working through this pandemic: doctors, nurses, and caregivers, but also truck drivers, janitors, grocery store clerks, police officers, firefighters, and others.   

These Americans are true heroes. They go above and beyond the call of duty, and they should be compensated for their extraordinary service and sacrifice. That’s why Democrats are proposing that Congress provide additional hazard pay for Americans engaged in essential work during the pandemic. We call it the “Heroes Fund,” and it's developed by Sens. Patty Murray, Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey, Tom Udall, Gary Peters and myself.

The plan has two components. First, it would provide a premium pay increase of up to $25,000 for essential workers, equivalent to a raise of $13 an hour from the start of the crisis through the end of the year. Second, it would provide a payment incentive of up to $15,000 to recruit and retain medical workers on the front lines. These funds will be backed by the federal government, and would be retroactive. For those who have died in the fight against this disease, our proposal would provide their families assistance as well.

A few weeks ago, Congress passed legislation providing needed funds for hospitals, small businesses, state and local governments, as well as Americans who suffered disruptions to their jobs and income. It was a critical piece of legislation that will help millions of small businesses, workers, and families. But the depth of damage caused by this pandemic means that Congress must pass additional legislation to keep our country afloat.

As Congress debates what should be included in the next round of emergency relief, the Heroes Fund must be part of that legislation. I hope my Republican colleagues will work with us to make it happen. If the legislation provides billions of dollars to help large corporations, the very least it should do is compensate workers on front lines.

Over the last few weeks, the best part of my day has come at 7 p.m., when I go to the window of my Brooklyn apartment and join with my neighbors to cheer on our essential workers. It’s a special moment. The isolation of social distancing gives way to a sense of unity. It’s a reminder, like the sign hanging outside the Bayville group home, that “Heroes Work Here.” We can find them in scrubs and masks, at grocery stores and driving trucks, and in the uniforms of New York’s finest.

These men and women should be rewarded for their uncommon and courageous labor. Congress should pass a Heroes Fund to give them hazard pay as soon as possible.

Chuck Schumer is the U.S. Senate minority leader.

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