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On April 7, the Senate proposed the Pandemic Premium Pay Fund, or “Heroes Fund,” to increase pay for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus is proving we take for granted the work of doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, janitors, maintenance workers and thousands of others all year long. The neglect many of these workers have suffered proves that we do not treat these people as a priority, even though we are completely reliant on them during this pandemic. Although this pay fund is a great way for the country to thank those who are risking their lives amid this global crisis, it should only be the first of many steps toward improving their working conditions when things return to normal.
WHY ARE OUR HEROES BARELY MAKING ENDS MEET?
The extra $13 per hour essential workers would be paid with the “Heroes Fund” will be capped at $25,000 for those who make less than $200,000 per year, or $5,000 for those who make $200,000 or more per year. This pay would extend through 2020, or until all essential workers have been paid according to their work on the front lines of the pandemic. Although we are in a global crisis, many essential workers are only making minimum wage, which is as low as $7.25 in some states. According to Living Wage Calculator, the living wage in the United States is about $16, which means that supporting a family with minimum wage under normal circumstances is practically impossible. And yet, it is an unjust reality for many families.
Some workers even make more money on unemployment than they would at their jobs. The CARES Act provides an extra $600 per week of unemployment pay for a period of up to four months. This means that unemployed workers could make as much as $24 per hour without a job. While this is a blessing to those who have been laid off as a result of the pandemic, it is an absolute insult to those who are risking their own lives and the lives of their families every day for $7.25 per hour.
YOU CAN’T PUT A PRICE ON PEOPLE’S LIVES
The amount aside, we need to recognize the sacrifice these workers are making during this time of crisis. At least 30 grocery store workers and 41 transit workers have died as a result of COVID-19. This does not include the thousands who have fallen sick and the threat their exposure poses to their families and roommates. Many minimum wage jobs don’t offer sick leave or healthcare benefits, so calling in sick could cost an employee their job. The same workers who can’t afford to stay home also can’t afford social distancing from their family. The job that keeps them barely afloat is a threat to their safety.
Beyond the physical well-being of these essential workers, their jobs also pose a threat to their mental health. Medical professionals are working on the site of death and disease and in the presence of hopelessness, fear and loneliness. Grocery store workers reported mask-clad shoppers who walked in panicked that they were going to contract the coronavirus in their short time at the store. Our country is in a state of fear, but it is the essential workers who witness it up close. We expect these workers to bear the brunt of everyone else’s panic and anxiety while they deal with their own, but they aren’t getting paid to be counselors. Instead they are being paid minimum wage to allow us to sit at home and eat our feelings.
Although the country needs these workers to provide groceries, transportation and medical supplies, we are not treating them like a priority. These people are not expendable and we need to start valuing their lives by recognizing the risks they take to provide us with necessities.
EVERY INDIVIDUAL IS WORTH IT
The hesitation to provide appropriate compensation for these workers comes from the government’s lack of funds. On top of the United States’ trillion-dollar debt and delay of tax revenue, increased unemployment pay and medical supplies are costing the government billions. It seems like the coronavirus is running our country dry, but the Heroes Fund is a necessary additional cost.
In the past we have spent money to drag the country out of crisis and this time is no different. The United States is a country of individuals and supplemental pay is one way we can care for our friends and neighbors. Our concern is not just for those who are in the hospital, praying that they will not be another number in the rising COVID-19 death rate. Our concern is also for those who are risking their lives each day to provide us groceries, for those who do not know how they will pay rent and for those who are battling limited medical supplies and rampant disease to keep us healthy.
We depend on these essential workers not only in times of crisis, but day after day and year after year. The Heroes Fund is a great first step, but only if it paves the way toward a lasting appreciation for those who dutifully provide the necessities we rely on. We need to ensure that our essential workers are supported when our lives return to normal. It took a global pandemic to raise awareness about their lack of health care and inadequate wages. If these things do not change for the long run, we are proving our disregard for the unseen heroes of this country.