Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

Frontline COVID-19 workers deserve better pay now and going forward

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It’s high time we give workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak the hazard pay they need and deserve.

Preliminary data on the frontline workers of the COVID-19 response in North Carolina paints a picture of the yawning gap between how much we rely on people in the caring professions and the wages they are paid for that work. The Center for Economic and Policy Research provided an analysis of major frontline industries for North Carolina and found that 1 in 4 frontline workers earns wages below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

That means that people we lean on for our most essential needs can’t afford the basics themselves in communities across North Carolina. Our Living Income Standard found that the average worker with children needs to earn an income of more than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (for a family of four that means $52,900 a year) to just to get by.

The disconnect between the value of work that care providers deliver and the wages they are paid isn’t something new. It has been present in our state for many years as the recession recovery has relied in large part on low-wage job growth. Even in the face of this glaring need, state policymakers have failed to raise the state minimum wage and have taken little action to raise the wages of teachers and early childhood educators.

As essential work continues amidst the pandemic, it is critical to provide workers with the pay that truly reflects their role in keeping our families safe and our communities connected.

Federal and state responses need to prioritize hazard pay that reflects this value and recognizes the personal risk to these workers.

We have heard little from the NC General Assembly about this critical issue, although agencies have recognized the issue and offered bonus pay for select workers like those in childcare centers.

At the federal level, hazard pay for essential workers is being lifted up as a way to support the necessary work happening to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and keep our communities together.

US Senate Democrats have proposed a “Heroes Fund” that would provide an average $13 an hour raise for essential workers through the end of the year; that increase would be capped for workers who earn above $200,000 at $5,000. President Trump has signaled a willingness to consider hazard pay for frontline workers in health care while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has suggested that hazard pay should target people who earn more and who as a result didn’t receive the stimulus payments from the CARES Act.

A recognition of what people earn and who most needs help will be essential to effectively targeting this policy to people whose wages have been too low. As researchers at Brookings Institution point out:

“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.”

It is also critical that a hazard pay proposal also consider essential workers not in health care who are working on the frontlines in hazardous conditions during the pandemic. Again the Brookings Institution outlines three fundamental truths about essential work during this time:

  • “Many essential workers are more likely to get sick or die due to their service, so there is a need to protect their family’s financial future; and
  • Many essential workers are more likely to contract COVID-19 due to activities at the job site and traveling to it, so there is a need to keep the worker and their families healthy; and
  • Many essential workers face new hazardous duties, so there is a need to compensate workers for their exposure to COVID-19 and incentivize their continued work within essential industries.”

Finally, hazard pay must move these workers closer to a living wage. For too long, many workers have had their labor undervalued. Now is the time to ensure that their earnings reflect the risks and the contributions that their work is making to our collective well-being.

A hazard pay proposal that does so will provide critical support to workers in this moment and a greater financial security for them and their families in a time of great risk. Hopefully too, this will prompt the long-needed conversation about the wages that we pay year-round to the workers who keep our economies running and our communities connected to make sure we can put food on the table, stay connected by mail and on-line with family and friends and have emergency responders on call.

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