Photos from top left: Courtney Meadows, Sabrina Hopps, Yvette Beatty, and Matt Milzman
“We are tired,” said Yvette Beatty, a 60-year-old home health worker at an assisted living center in Philadelphia. “We are scared. Our prayers are running out. How much can we pray?”
》Explore the COVID-19 frontline heroes series: Grocery workers
With “a little, bitty check” from her work at the front line of COVID-19 pandemic caring for elderly and immunocompromised residents, Beatty is currently the sole provider for her family of seven. Recently, two of her children were laid off due to the crisis. “Now I am the head of everything,” she told me. “Our family is saying, ‘Momma, I don’t want you to go out there.’ But this is my job. It isn’t for the money, because what I get paid is never enough. I have been working in this field for 35-some years. I haven’t seen $15 an hour yet. I put my life on the line for $11, $12 an hour, just to survive.”
Like millions of hourly workers across the country, Beatty is risking her life and the health of her family to perform a job now deemed “essential” for society—and is barely surviving herself.
COVID-19 has laid bare the enormous gap between the value that frontline workers like Beatty bring to society and the low wages—and lack of respect—many earn in return. It is long past time that low-wage workers secure a permanent income boost and earn a living wage with adequate benefits.
The extreme sacrifices we are asking frontline workers to take require an immediate response to recognize the risks they are facing simply by showing up to do jobs like ringing up groceries, cleaning hospital rooms, driving buses and ambulances, and treating critically ill patients. We owe them urgent policy change to ensure they earn federally mandated hazard pay, on top of stringent safety measures and life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) to shield them from the coronavirus.
Workers need hazard pay
“I think some pay increase would be wonderful because I don’t think they understand the toll that comes through in our lives,” said Courtney Meadows, a 37-year-old grocery cashier in Beckley, W.Va. “They don’t see the panic on people’s faces.”
With little financial security, many workers I interviewed feel like they have no choice but to continue working, and the sudden hazards of their jobs were top of mind. Nearly every frontline worker I interviewed said they feared exposing their loved ones to the virus.
Sabrina Hopps, a 46-year-old housekeeping aid in an acute care facility in Washington, D.C., worries constantly about the risks her job poses to her family as she cleans the rooms of vulnerable residents. “I’m petrified, to be honest,” she told me. “If I contract it, I live with my son, my daughter, and my granddaughter. My son and I have asthma. He is also a cancer survivor.”
The low wage Hopps earns for her essential work is the reason she lives with relatives across three generations—and why she cannot afford to safely social distance from them. “They should give us extra compensation because we are the ones taking the risk,” said Hopps. “We are the ones that will be exposed faster than anybody else.”
Who should get hazard pay, and how much?
Fortunately, a growing number of policymakers are championing hazard pay. On April 7, Senate Democrats introduced a proposal calling for the next stimulus bill to include a COVID-19 “Heroes Fund,” through which the federal government would finance “premium pay” of an additional $25,000 (or roughly an additional $13 per hour) for essential frontline workers. The proposal builds on a similar suggestion from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who wrote to President Trump in March calling for new “Pandemic Premium Pay” worth time-and-a-half wages for essential workers.
A fair and equitable system for hazard pay should compensate essential, frontline workers who face significant exposure to COVID-19 through their jobs. Priority should be given to workers who currently earn low and modest wages.
Access to hazard pay should not be limited to workers in the health field. Early signals from the Trump administration suggest a narrow interest in hazard pay only for health workers such as doctors and nurses. While health professionals face an unquestionably high risk of contracting the coronavirus, they are not alone; just in hospitals, a far greater number of workers—security guards, cafeteria workers, cleaners, front desk staff—risk their lives too and should be recognized and compensated.
Recently, my colleagues Adie Tomer and Joseph W. Kane analyzed workers in industries that the Department of Homeland Security has designated as essential, which include mail carriers, grocery cashiers, pharmacy aides, and package handlers. These workers, too, face many coronavirus risks. Recent headlines about workers dying from on-the-job exposure reinforce the serious danger to those outside the health sector: In New York City alone, a staggering 41 transit workers have died, while across the country, COVID-19 has killed several grocery workers as well.
Determining the appropriate amount of compensation that essential workers should receive for risking their lives is a fraught and challenging exercise. Amber Stevens, a 30-year-old grocery cashier in Washington, D.C., voiced that difficulty.
“Honestly, I don’t think you can put a number on how much is enough, because we are risking ourselves to help others,” Stevens told me. “How can you really put a number on my life, my health?”
Any federally mandated hazard pay should be sufficient to ensure all hourly workers risking their lives earn a living wage of at least $16.14 per hour—but truly, pay should go well beyond this minimum. For workers like Yvette Beatty, who started the pandemic earning very low wages, an increase of only a few dollars an hour (or even time-and-a-half wages) would not be enough to support a family.
Hazard pay compensation should be progressive, to ensure that workers earning less than a living wage (or even less than the country’s median wage of $18.58 per hour) are adequately compensated at a level akin to time-and-a-half or even “double-time” wages. Higher-paid essential workers would receive less as a percent of their (higher) salaries.
To enhance the administrative feasibility of the program and limit total cost, the government could select one standard hazard pay amount for all at-risk frontline workers at a level that sufficiently boosts (by 50% to 100%) lower-wage pay, and limit eligibility up to a maximum income.
The following chart summarizes several benchmarks and levels of hazard pay under consideration, and considers their strengths and weaknesses:
|Hazard pay amount||Examples and benchmarks||Pros and cons|
|25% increase||The federal government. The Office of Personnel Management issued new coronavirus guidance to federal agencies in March advising that individual agencies are to determine whether federal employees qualify for 25% hazard pay on a “case-by-case basis.” The 25% hazard pay differential is stipulated in the Code of Regulations for federal employees exposed to “virulent biologicals,” meaning “work with or in close proximity to…[m]aterials of micro-organic nature which when introduced into the body are likely to cause serious disease or fatality and for which protective devices do not afford complete protection.”||
A 25% pay increase may be more appropriate for salaried employees who earn more than median wage than it is for low-wage workers.
For instance, a 25% increase for a low-wage worker earning $11 per hour results in a wage of only $13.75 per hour.
|50% increase, or “time-and-a-half” pay||
Holiday pay. In hourly wage work, from grocery stores to retail shops, it is a common practice for many employers to provide “time-and-a-half” pay for hourly employees working holidays or Sundays.
Overtime. While overtime varies by company, typically employers pay overtime worked by hourly workers at “time-and-a-half.” In California, this is mandated for every hour worked over eight hours, up to 12 hours.
“Pandemic Premium Pay” proposal. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has called for the next stimulus bill to require all companies to provide “time-and-a-half” hazard pay—or “Pandemic Premium Pay”—to essential workers, retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic and extending throughout it.
“Time-and-a-half” has the benefit of being widely recognized by hourly workers. However, it is not generous enough for the lowest-paid workers to earn a living wage, and would be very generous for higher-paid workers.
Time-and-a-half would just barely put the typical grocery cashier over the minimum living wage.
|100% increase, or “double-time pay”||
Extra overtime. Double-time pay is mandated in California for certain extra overtime worked, above and beyond 12 hours.
Workers’ groups. Some workers’ groups have called for “premium” hazard pay of double-time pay.
Double-time pay would result in nearly all low-wage workers earning at least a living wage.
But, double-time pay is costly for workers making above the median wage.
|Extra $13 per hour, or $25,000||“Heroes Fund” proposal. In their proposal for a COVID-19 “Heroes Fund,” Senate Democrats have suggested essential workers receive an additional $25,000 for work through the end of 2020, equivalent to an extra $13 per hour.||
The Heroes Fund proposal is simple, with one standard amount.
The increase would be close to double-time pay for the average low-wage worker, a 50% boost for a mail carrier, a 20% boost for a pharmacist, and less than 15% for a surgeon (based on median 2018 wages).
|Smaller, one-time bonuses and $2 per hour increases||
Large companies. A handful of large companies including Amazon, Safeway, Kroger, Target, Whole Foods, and Costco are instituting a temporary pay increase of $2 per hour. Several other companies such as Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS have offered one-time bonuses ranging from $150 to $500.
City and state governments. Atlanta is paying essential city employees an additional $500 per month, while in Georgia’s Augusta County, essential employees will receive an additional $5 per hour. Maryland state employees will receive an additional $3.13 per hour (or about $250 every two weeks).
A small hourly bonus is not enough to raise the pay of many low-wage workers to a living wage. A typical Kroger cashier makes about $10 per hour. An additional $2 is still well short of a wage that provides for a family’s basic needs.
Several workers, such as Matt Milzman (text box below), have expressed their frustration that the hourly pay increases offered by their employers are insufficient.
In his own words: Matt Milzman, Safeway cashier in Washington, D.C., on hazard pay
“No, the $2 per hour is not enough. At the same time, I am grateful to have it over nothing, that is the insane thing. You have people doing the exact same job that I am doing, and no hazard pay. God forbid, doctors, nurses, people wrapping themselves in garbage bags because they don’t have proper PPE—no hazard pay. I mean, it is ridiculous.
No one signs up to do this. Even if you work in one of these emergency jobs, you might, but this is something wholly different. This is something that our society is not equipped to handle in a fair and equitable way. This has laid bare more than anything—everyone is willing to give you just enough to survive, but at the end of the day, when the chips really fall down, then everyone rings their hands about, ‘Oh how are we going to pay for it.’ We can pay for a million other things, but in terms of providing the people who are putting their lives at risk equitable and fair pay, then everyone shrugs their shoulders and says, “Oh gosh, golly gee.’ It is ridiculous.
You know what I think should happen? Honestly, I think it is double pay. Everyone dealing at the front line of this should get double pay. I’ll tell you something, the difference between my normal shift that I worked, Jesus, a month ago, and the shift that I am about to work right now in five minutes, the difference between those two is not $2 an hour. These are insane. I am a grocery store worker. I am not a licensed mental health professional. And yet I am having to deal with people who are in an incredibly agitated state, understandably so. Anxiety. And that weird miasma that kind of exists over everything right now where none of us know what the hell is going to happen because this has never happened before. This surreal moment we live in. I do not have the proper training to deal with this. And yet I am being expected to go in every shift and deal with this. And I’ll happily deal with it. Sure. I would rather it be someone like me than someone who might be at a greater risk of catching and possibly dying of this disease. But it’s not a difference of $2 an hour.
I think there needs to be a fair reflection in the pay people are getting: doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, everyone at the front of this. Sanitation workers. We need to be making at least double. The fact that some people aren’t even making any hazard pay, it is criminal. It really shows where our priorities are as a society. Profit is the number-one priority in our society. And as the president said, best case scenario, 100,000 people die. That is two of the towns I live in. I live in Rockville, Maryland—that is 50,000 people. Two Rockvilles worth of people dying, that is insane. And that is the best-case scenario. And all of these millionaires and billionaires who run these companies are thinking, how do I maintain my profits?I think there needs to be a fundamental restructuring of how we think and do things in this society that focuses on humanity. The humanity of us in the grocery stores, the humanity of the doctors and nurses in the hospital, the humanity of the people who continue to pick up your trash every day, the humanity of all people in this situation who are going in every day, risking their lives to try and carry on as normal.”
In the face of the extraordinary sacrifices that society is asking of essential workers, it is an outrage that so many workers are risking their lives while being denied the dignity of a family-sustaining wage.
“They are calling a small temporary raise a ‘hero pay,’” said Lisa Harris, a 32-year-old grocery cashier in Richmond, Va., reflecting on the temporary $2 per hour raise her employer, Kroger, has introduced. “I don’t think that is enough, especially for those who started off at minimum wage. And it is only temporary during this crisis. I think that $15 an hour should be the minimum, and stay there. We are heroes every day, and we deserve to be paid as such. We haven’t gone from unskilled labor to essential personnel. We always were essential personnel.”
We owe it to all frontline workers who are risking their lives for the rest of us to adequately compensate, support, recognize, and protect them. Hazard pay is the least we can do to compensate them for the risks they face—a down payment for what should be permanent increases so that all workers earn the dignity of a living wage.
Photos taken by Molly Kinder for Yvette Beatty, Sabrina Hopps and Matt Milzman. Photo of Courtney Meadows taken by Mark Covey.