Front Line Workers Should Receive Hazard Pay Amidst Coronavirus Outbreak

Above, workers and shoppers stand in close quarters with one another at a grocery store checkout line in Massachusetts.
Photo courtesy of The Boston Herald

By John Meeks ’21

As cases of the novel coronavirus swell in the United States, many workers are risking their lives to save others, maintain supply chains, and protect our nation’s infrastructure. As of Thursday April 2nd, 40 states and Washington, D.C. have issued stay at home orders, with health officials citing these orders as the most effective way to limit exposure to the disease and protect yourself and others. Yet, day in and day out, many workers are sent to the front lines to do their jobs in the midst of the crisis, often without proper protection, and without any recompense. Although no amount of extra pay can account for the lives lost on the front lines, a universal hazard pay should be mandated for all workers who continue to serve their nation in this time of crisis.

The United States Department of Labor defines hazard pay as “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship. Work duty that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress which is not adequately alleviated by protective devices is deemed to impose a physical hardship.”

As CDC officials now advise all United States citizens to wear masks in public, many nurses, grocery store workers, and other front line workers still do not have access to basic personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

Many nurses and doctors have fallen ill with the coronavirus, a blow to America’s already crippled health care system. Personal protective equipment is being cited as “dangerously low,” a development that would put many at risk. An Italian doctor recently died of coronavirus after running out of gloves and being forced to work directly with infected patients.

How is it that a nurse risking her life by exposing herself daily to sick patients not constitute “imposing a physical hardship?”

On the front lines of grocery stores, some have already taken this initiative, with companies such as Harris Teeter and Martin’s offering an extra hourly bonus for their workers. Other stores who haven’t taken these steps have faced consequences, with workers from Whole Foods and the popular online grocery shopping service Instacart staging strikes until they received some form of hazard bonus and better protective gear.

Many have taken the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to praise workers who work the jobs that are so essential to our social and economic infrastructure. However, that appreciation does little in remunerating these workers.

 In a New York Times article, Jorge Juan Rodriguez V, a doctoral candidate, said “the crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid.” 

The workers who are at the most risk have the least access to sick leave and proper health care. It is imperative that we protect the workers who keep our nation running during this crisis.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, believes that all federal workers should receive hazard pay, followed by all nurses, doctors, and other first responders.

As a grocery store cashier myself, it’s daunting to walk into the store everyday knowing that the majority of people have been ordered to quit working and stay home. Lines of people, some in masks and some not step into my lane. Some place their groceries down and anxiously stand 10 feet back. Others, saunter up and lean over the register and start talking to me. Each person is a unique threat. Most customers have been on their best behavior, being grateful for the risk we are taking everyday. Everything seems uncertain. 

Universal hazard pay for frontline workers would be one of the few steps forward in our government’s response to the coronavirus, as it would at least provide a tangible way of recognizing and recompensing the workers who risk their lives to protect America’s sick and wounded and keep the infrastructure stable.

Categories: Opinion