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The COVID-19 Heroes Fund Senate Democrats Memo

April, 2020

COVID-19 Heroes Fund Concept Outlined in Senate Democrats Memorandum

As reported yesterday, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for a COVID-19 Heroes Compensation Fund inspired by the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (9/11 VCF). Last week, Congressman Jerrold Nadler called for the 9/11 VCF and the WTC Health Program to include COVID-19 exacerbations of certified covered conditions. Elected officials and journalists have made countless comparisons of the COVID-19 crisis and 9/11. Senate Democrats have already outlined a plan for a COVID-19 Heroes Fund in a memorandum copied below, alongside a press release also copied below:

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SENATE DEMOCRATS UNVEIL COVID-19“HEROES FUND” PROPOSAL TO PROVIDE $25,000 PAY INCREASE TO ESSENTIAL WORKERS ON FRONTLINE OF NATION’S PANDEMIC RESPONSE

April 7, 2020

Senate Democrats’ Proposed “Heroes Fund,” Introduced By Sens. Schumer, Murray, Brown, Casey, Udall, And Peters, Would Provide Premium Pay To Reward, Retain, And Recruit Essential Frontline Workers

Proposed COVID-19 “Heroes Fund” Consists Of Two Major Components—A $25,000 Premium Pay Increase For Essential Workers + A $15,000 Essential Worker Recruitment Incentive To Attract And Secure Workforce Needed To Fight Public Health Crisis

Senate Democrats: Essential Frontline Workers Are True Heroes Of COVID-19 Pandemic Response—“Heroes Fund” Would Provide Much-Needed Pay Increase And Secure Workforce For Grueling Months Ahead

Washington, D.C. — Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senate Committee on Aging Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-PA), Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Vice Chairman Tom Udall (D-NM), and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-MI) today unveiled the COVID-19 “Heroes Fund,” Senate Democrats’ proposal for the provision of pandemic premium pay to reward, retain, and recruit essential workers. Senate Democrats’ proposed “Heroes Fund” consists of two major components: a $25,000 premium pay increase for essential workers, equivalent to a raise of $13 per hour from the start of the public health emergency until December 31, 2020, and a $15,000 essential worker recruitment incentive to attract and secure the workforce needed to fight the public health crisis.

Essential frontline workers are the true heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic response in America. Senate Democrats believe in providing premium pay to frontline workers during this pandemic not only to reward essential workers’ for their great personal sacrifices but also to ensure the retention of essential workers who are working grueling hours on the frontlines of this crisis as well as the recruitment of additional workers who will be needed in the months ahead.

“Thousands of workers report to the frontlines of our nation’s pandemic response each and every day, placing themselves squarely in harm’s way to serve the needs of others,” said Leader Schumer. “Senate Democrats’ proposed ‘Heroes Fund’ would provide premium pay to these essential workers—the doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, transit workers, and more who are central to fighting this crisis—and would establish an incentive system to retain and recruit the workforce needed for the long months to come. Essential frontline workers sacrifice daily for our collective health and well-being, and Senate Democrats are fully committed to supplying these heroes the financial support they deserve.”

“The frontline workers who are literally putting their lives on the line every single day to keep us healthy, keep us fed, and to keep us safe—deserve our most profound gratitude. But we all know that gratitude isn’t enough,” said Senator Murray. “As we continue our coronavirus response, ensuring frontline workers receive premium pay during this pandemic is the least our country can do to honor these true heroes.”

“Workers in hospitals and nursing homes, in the service sector and public safety, and throughout our economy are risking their lives during this public health emergency to keep our citizens safe, and their paychecks should reflect that. Frontline workers also need proper protection from the virus at work, said Senator Brown. “The next coronavirus-response package Congress passes must honor the dignity of their work by including this Pandemic Premium Pay proposal to compensate our frontline heroes and mandatory safety requirements to keep them safe on the job.”

“We are in a war against COVID-19, and we owe our gratitude to all of the workers who are putting their own health and safety at risk by fighting on the front lines of this pandemic,” said Senator Casey. “And just like wartime, we must recognize and reward those who are on the front lines—health care professionals, first responders, personal care and home health workers, truck drivers, grocery store workers and other unsung heroes—for their selfless efforts to do the critical work of protecting our citizens and keeping our country running so millions of Americans can stay safe at home. The Heroes Fund would provide essential workers with increased compensation and incentivize others to join the fight against COVID-19.”

“Essential frontline workers in New Mexico and across the country are risking their own health to protect ours, to care for our loved ones, and to keep our communities safe and running. We owe these heroes – the health care workers, first responders, law enforcement, grocery clerks, delivery workers, and many others – more than just words of gratitude: we must make sure they are paid what they deserve,” said Senator Udall. “Importantly, this proposal will give Tribal frontline workers equal access to these benefits, and includes the necessary flexibility to meet the unique needs of Native communities. Because this crisis is hitting Indian Country especially hard: frontline workers in Native communities are stretched thin, and, due to severe federal underfunding, Indian Country has long struggled to recruit and retain workers in fields like health care and law enforcement. So this proposal is absolutely necessary for Indian Country and for all communities — to support the frontline workers who are doing incredible, life-saving work, and to secure the workforce that we need to keep our nation healthy and strong.”

“So many people are working hard and performing essential duties to help our communities confront this pandemic, and they deserve to be compensated for their dedication,” said Senator Peters. “Whether it’s health care providers and food supply workers in the private sector, or postal workers and security professionals in the public sector, we owe our frontline workers our thanks and our support. This proposal not only addresses the financial needs of these essential workers, it also presses for additional protective gear and other measures that will help ensure they can continue to perform their critical roles while protecting their health and safety.”

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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.

Premium Pay as a Recruitment and Retention Incentive. In order to recruit the additional health care workers, home care workers, and first responders needed over the coming months, our proposal—

  • Would provide a one-time $15,000 premium for signing on to do essential work.
  • Would limit eligibility for this incentive premium to essential health and home care workers and first responders that are experiencing severe staffing shortages impeding the ability to provide care during the COVID-19 pandemic (1).

Premium Pay and Worker Incentives Delivery Mechanism

Our proposal would fully federally-fund the premium pay and recruitment and retention incentive. We will continue to seek input on the specific mechanism for delivering the pay to workers, as well as the universe of “essential workers” to be covered. The new federal fund would partner with entities designated as an “eligible employer” – states, localities, tribes, and certain private-sector employers – to issue the funds premium payments to eligible workers.

Frontline federal employees would also be granted the new benefit of up to $25,000.

COVID-19 Heroes Fund. The new COVID-19 Heroes Fund would provide funds directly to eligible employer-partners so that they could distribute the premium payments.

  • Employers in industries engaged in “essential work” would apply to the Heroes Fund for funds to be used to add line-item premium pay to employees’ or independent contractors’ paychecks. The eligible employer would track these payments, provide payroll records demonstrating premium payments, and return any unspent funds to the agency.
  • No employer would be required to participate, but all would be strongly encouraged to and the program would be widely advertised.
  • An entity that contracts directly with the state, locality, Tribe, or the federal government (e.g., to provide care to people with Medicare and Medicaid coverage) would be considered a private-sector employer, and employees of this entity who are designated as “essential” would be eligible for premium pay. Similarly, an eligible employer is also an individual who hires someone designated as “essential” through programs established through the State (e.g., self-directed care arrangements). This would help ensure coverage of the 2.2 million home health aides, direct service providers, and personal care workers who provide services to more than 12 million Americans.
  • Eligible employers would submit applications for the recruitment and retention incentive premium on a rolling basis.

Federal Workforce. Our proposal would ensure all federal government essential frontline employees receive the same $25,000 premium pay benefit provided to other essential workers (2).

Additional Background and Commentary

Precedents. Disasters require exceptional flexibility in standard work schedules and assignments and often put first responders and other essential workers in dangerous situations. To ensure this critical workforce is compensated appropriately, there are precedents for funding hazard premium pay and worker incentives through a federal program.

FEMA, through the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Response and Emergency Assistance Act and the Disaster Relief Fund, is currently authorized to reimburse state, local, and tribal governments for straight-time and premium pay associated with disaster response. Extraordinary costs (such as call-back pay, night-time or weekend differential pay, and hazardous duty pay) for essential employees who are called back to duty during administrative leave to perform eligible Emergency Work are eligible for reimbursement in certain circumstances.

This authority has been used many times over the last few years to pay for personnel costs associated with enforcing curfews, facilitating evacuation routes, and restoring critical infrastructure. Past usage illustrates precedent for federal funding of critical state, local, and tribal employees performing essential response functions that keep our communities safe in times of disaster.

Essential Frontline Worker definitions. As mentioned above, the definition of essential frontline workers for purposes of both the premium pay increase and the recruitment-retention incentive will be the subject of debate. This proposal is not meant to exclude any worker from this conversation. Rather, we hope this proposal will encourage a discussion about how large and diverse this universe of workers truly is. Our goal is to make federal, state, tribal, local and private sector essential workers that are at risk eligible for this benefit.

Retroactive Pay. Workers who have been on the frontlines since the initial declaration of the Public Health Emergency on January 27, 2020, could receive a lump sum of back pay of $13 per hour for work before enactment. These workers would continue to receive the $13 per hour premium pay on top of regular wages moving forward, but these workers would still be subject to the maximum premium pay cap outlined above.

Additional Benefits for Essential Health and Home Care Workers and First Responders. The employers of frontline health and home care workers and first responders should be eligible to apply for a second round of premium pay funds of up to $10,000 as those workers continue to combat the virus.

Death Benefits. It is a deeply disturbing but unfortunate reality that some of our frontline workers are making the ultimate sacrifice to the nation through their work fighting COVID-19. Their families rightfully deserve to receive the full amount of the premium pay as a lump sum in addition to all other forms of death benefits.

Protections from Corporate Expense Shifting. Certain large corporations engaged in the provision of essential services and goods employ essential frontline workers who are deserving of premium pay. However, massive corporations should make investments in providing premium pay of their own accord before trying to participate in this program.

Protecting Workers and PPE. Senate Democrats have been fighting to give essential workers the protections and equipment they need to stay safe. The CARES Act provided billions of dollars for PPE, and Democrats have pushed the Administration to appoint a czar to handle all manufacturing and distribution of critical PPE. We must do more to ensure all frontline workers have the protective gear they need to perform their jobs safely, and we need a strong emergency temporary standard to protect all workers.

  1. The recruitment and retention incentive might need to cover a broader swathe of workers in Indian Country and other underserved areas that experienced high levels of essential frontline worker vacancies prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Certain federal workers are entitled under current law to a maximum 25 percent hazard premium pay for exposure to hazardous substances, including virulent biologicals. However, President Trump has failed to activate this policy for the federal workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Coverage should be expansive to capture all federal employees with public-facing positions. This includes Title 5 employees and employees of all other federal personnel systems (e.g., employees of the Postal Service, TSA, VA, FAA, District of Columbia, and federally-funded Indian programs).
    • The benefit would be limited to frontline and public-facing positions – employees who are not teleworking from their homes.
  3. Federally-funded Indian program employees include any employee who works for 1) program operated by an Indian Tribe under an Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act “638” contract or compact; 2) a Tribal Controlled Schools Act “297” grant Bureau of Indian Education school; or, 3) an urban Indian organization operating under an Indian Health Service contract pursuant to Title V of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.