Essential Workers Are Making Less Money Than Those On Unemployment

Photo by Cassie M. Thompson

We insist that many making minimum wage or close are essential enough that we need them to keep working, but we haven’t found a way yet to properly compensate them for the risk they are taking on when they clock in.

Those essential workers who show up at jobs like grocery stores and fast food chains may only see small financial rewards, such as an extra $2 per hour in hazard pay during this pandemic. Employers are not required to offer it though, so only some workers have received the bump, which may only add up to an extra $80 or so weekly for a full-time worker anyway.

Meanwhile, the CARES Act is allowing for those on unemployment to receive an extra $600 per week in addition to their regular benefit. So a full-time grocery store worker who was taking home $700 every two weeks might now be making $860 with their hazard pay benefit, or perhaps a little more with an increase in hours. Compare with a person on unemployment who could be taking home a benefit of $600 every two weeks plus an extra $600 per week for a total of $1800 over that same pay period.

Some workers feel they are being treated unfairly for being expected to show up to these jobs only to take home less pay than those who are sitting safely at home making unemployment. In a way, the essential workers are trapped. They can’t get unemployment if they quit, but their jobs won’t fire them so long as they’re needed. What this means is that while essential businesses are booming, their employees are receiving none of the gains while taking on most of the risk.

Senate Democrats recently proposed a bill called the Heroes Fund to pay an extra $13 per hour to all essential employees (up to $25,000) with the increase to last through the end of the year.

Below are some of the key details of the bill proposed by Senate Democrats, and you can read the full text by clicking here.

The COVID-19 “Heroes Fund”
Senate Democrats’ Proposal for Pandemic Premium Pay to Reward, Retain, & Recruit Essential Workers
Essential frontline workers are the true heroes of America’s COVID-19 pandemic response. Senate Democrats believe in providing premium pay to frontline workers during this pandemic to reward essential frontline workers, ensure the retention of essential workers who are working grueling hours on the frontlines of this crisis, and promote the recruitment of additional workers who will be needed in the months ahead.
As the Congress looks at a potential fourth COVID-19 bill, the following proposal is meant for consideration by Members of Congress, key stakeholders, and the American people.

Our proposal consists of two major components:
1. A $25,000 pandemic premium pay increase for essential frontline workers, equivalent to a raise of an additional $13 per hour from the start of the public health emergency until December 31, 2020.
2. A $15,000 recruitment incentive for health and home care workers and first responders to attract and secure the workforce needed to fight the public health crisis.

Structure of the Pandemic Premium Pay
To meet the goals of reward, retention, and recruitment, we propose a set dollar amount per hour with a maximum amount for the year, for a definite duration, and with an additional bonus for workers who sign up to do such essential work during this crisis.

Amount of Pay Premium
Our proposal —
- Uses a flat-dollar amount per hour premium model in order to ensure it is clear, simple, and lifts up particularly those workers making lower wages.
- Would give each essential frontline worker $13/hour premium pay on top of regular wages for all hours worked in essential industries through the end of 2020.
- Would cap the total maximum premium pay at $25,000 for each essential frontline worker earning less than $200,000 per year and $5,000 for each essential worker earning $200,000 or more per year. Duration of Premium.

The premium pay period —
- Must be for a specified and clear duration of time to ensure workers can rely on it for their economic security and plan for needs like additional child care.
- Should cover all hours worked by each essential frontline worker through December 31, 2020, or until the worker’s salary-based maximum premium pay is reached.

The pandemic shouldn’t be dividing us, but online many of the workers deemed essential are voicing their anger and jealousy at those who are now getting unemployment and other payments. Why can’t they sit at home and collect money? Why must they now work more hours than ever, take more attitude from tense customers, and potentially be exposed to a life-threatening virus every time they go to work?

Some steps have been taken to address these concerns. Cities like Los Angeles, California are now requiring shoppers to wear a face mask when entering a business. Likewise, workers are required to wear them. Combined with six-foot social distancing guidelines, we may have effective rules in place to help protect worker health.

As for the compensation issue, hopefully the workers who cannot get unemployment will be getting their due soon. We should raise awareness about their situation and promote ideas for increasing their compensation during the pandemic. It’s also important that we stick together, because bemoaning that one group is getting a good deal does nothing for you yourself. We must lift each other up so that we all do well.

Share your support of the Heroes Fund so that congress will approve essential workers receiving the additional pay they deserve.

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(Note: After doing some additional research I’ve found that it is possible for employees to leave their jobs and receive unemployment. There are a number of reasons which would give you good cause to file, though specifics will vary by state and require each individual to evaluate their own situation. You can read about this in my other article — Essential Workers: Here’s How You Can Get Unemployment.)

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