U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse would like to see all essential workers receive hazard pay during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has introduced a bill to start with front-line healthcare professionals by funding an additional 25% of their salary through the federal government.
“Up until now, not a single bill had been introduced providing any potential hazard pay in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Neguse said. The bill authorizes the salary additions for healthcare workers, but excludes categories of employees who are not directly treating COVID-19 patients, such as veterinarians or chiropractors. Neguse, however, believes in broadening the range of workers that deserves extra compensation.
“I think every essential worker should have hazard pay,” he said. Senate Democrats are in favor of such a proposal, and have floated the idea of offering up to $25,000 in additional income for large categories of people still working in service industries.
The Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning policy organization, has cautioned that a compensation program relying on a percentage increase would be inequitable for lower-wage workers, considering that a higher wage would result in a higher percentage of earned hazard pay. Neguse said that he had not heard about that concern, but that the bill as written had input from medical professionals and labor groups.
“If you did a special dollar amount, it might go a long way in certain parts of our country and not so much in others,” he explained. “We thought a percentage-based approach, which reflects using the underlying salary numbers of individuals in different parts of the country, would be a much more appropriate metric.”
The bill is one of multiple that Neguse has authored in recent days, including measures authorizing $11.5 billion for states to obtain lodging facilities and sanitary supplies for individuals experiencing homelessness and $250 billion in aid to localities with populations under 500,000.
The CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic relief measure passed at the end of March, had a similar lifeline to local governments, but only those whose populations exceeded 500,000.
“Services we all rely on — firefighters, police services, EMTs, water treatment — those are all local services provided by your county and city government,” Neguse said. “The reality is the CARES Act did not go far enough in addressing a massive revenue shortfall in counties in our state and across the country.”
He hoped that a “modest investment” now would forestall a larger potential bailout of state and local governments further into the pandemic. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
Neguse also weighed in on Tuesday on the report from Colorado Politics that black Colorado residents are up to 75% more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 than white residents. Latinos also had an elevated risk, but not nearly as high as that of blacks.
Calling the disproportionate effects “unconscionable”, Neguse said that “there are a number of things that we can do as a Congress in the next federal relief bill to make sure we’re addressing some of those disparate impacts.”
He cited increased funding for community health centers, which is a federally-supported network of primary and preventive care providers. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from 2015 found that 59% of patients in CHCs were nonwhite, and seven in 10 had incomes less than double the federal poverty level.
While Neguse would not commit to potential investigations of the disparities, Colorado’s first African-American congressman felt that future COVID-19-related bills should be attentive to the needs of minority communities — including tribal populations, where a greater presence of underlying health conditions and overcrowded housing presents a high public health risk.
“I think I’d take a close look at the data and have an opportunity to visit with public health experts, particularly minority public health experts, to get a sense of the spread of different data points as to why this is happening,” he said.