Support Essential Frontline Workers

Essential frontline workers are the true heroes of America’s COVID-19 pandemic response. Many are risking their health for only minimum wage. And if they get sick, most are not entitled to sick days to get well and also keep their job.1 Forty percent of workers over 50 years old — the populations most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus — lack paid sick leave.2 An estimated 21 percent of all workers are in “high-contact” occupations, requiring face-to-face and close physical interactions with the public.3 All hourly workers risking their lives should earn a living wage of at least $16.14 per hour. Senate Democrats’ COVID-19 “Heroes Fund” proposal for pandemic premium pay will reward, retain and recruit essential frontline workers. This includes 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 Dec. 31, 2020, and 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.4

Furthermore, the federal government should expand emergency paid leave beyond what was included in the CARES Act. At this time, only 12 states and D.C. have enacted similar laws requiring paid sick leave. All states should meet this challenge or give local governments the ability to enact local paid family and sick leave policies. Employees in places like grocery stores, pharmacies, and warehouses who remain on the job need protection too. In addition, workers who contract coronavirus or are caring for a family member with coronavirus need medical leave as well. We should provide emergency paid sick days and paid family and medical leave to workers in companies with 500 or more employees. All frontline workers should be entitled to emergency paid sick leave that they can use if they get sick or need to be quarantined. Longer-term leave should be expanded to include coronavirus-related medical and family caregiving leave, and coverage of caregivers for older adults and adults with disabilities should be expanded.5

Congress should also enact Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) Essential Workers Bill of Rights so they have access to health and safety protections, robust premium compensation, protections for collective bargaining agreements, truly universal paid sick leave and family and medical leave, protections for whistleblowers, an end to worker misclassification, healthcare security, and support for child care–treating workers as experts and holding corporations accountable for meeting their responsibilities.6

The absence of paid sick leave policies in southern states also puts communities at greater risk. Too few workers in the South, especially workers in low-wage jobs, have access to paid sick leave.7 No states in the South require all employers to provide paid sick leave, and recent attempts to pass legislation in Kentucky, Louisiana, Virginia, and West Virginia have not yet advanced.8 State action to implement emergency paid sick time is particularly important in southern states where jobs have lower wages and are less likely to be in financial activities, information industries, and education and health services, which have the highest access to paid leave. At a time when the importance of paid leave has been laid bare, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee all prohibit local governments from providing paid leave to their constituents. State policymakers should provide at least 14 days of emergency paid sick days that are immediately available regardless of accrued time to all workers in businesses of all sizes, in order to reduce community spread of the novel coronavirus.9

The COVID-19 pandemic is making us all reassess what is considered essential work, from health care providers to grocery workers and factory line workers. If the federal government is not going to make a definitive statement on the value of their work in light of this pandemic and the public health threat it represents, then state governments should raise their minimum wage or give local governments the freedom to raise their local wage floors. The federal minimum wage remains $7.25 per hour. But at this time, only 29 states and D.C. have set their minimum wages above that level.10