Hazard pay for essential workers

Hazard pay for essential workers

New spending rules issued this week say that states and local governments can use their federal COVID-19 relief aid for hazard pay for essential workers. The allowance comes amid a brewing battle in California over grocery workers’ right to hazard pay.

The inclusion is part of the U.S. Department of Treasury’s sweeping guidance on how state, local and tribal governments can spend their portion of the $350 billion in direct aid under the American Rescue Plan Act. Many of the rules point to economic and racial inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, including the disproportionate impact on essential workers.

“Employers’ policies on COVID-19-related hazard pay have varied widely, with many essential workers not yet compensated for the heightened risks they have faced and continue to face,” the rule said. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 25% of essential workers were estimated to have low household income, with 13% in high-risk households.

“The added health risk to essential workers is one prominent way in which the pandemic has amplified pre-existing socioeconomic inequities,” Treasury said.

Up to $25,000 in hazard pay

For workers earning minimum wage, hazard pay could temporarily more than double their wages. The rule defines premium pay as “an amount up to $13 per hour in addition to wages or remuneration the worker otherwise receives.” If pay would increase a worker’s wages by more than 150%, written justification is also required.

The total payout is capped at $25,000 per eligible worker.

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Ten largest low-wage frontline essential jobs that pay less than $15 per hour, 2018

OccupationNumberMedian wage% Black% Latino or Hispanic
Personal care aides2,152,540$11.5523%22%
Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeepers1,774,500$12.5517%26%
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers1,471,370$13.5922%21%
Nursing assistants1,389,520$13.7235%12%
Stock clerks and order fillers1,146,110$12.3618%19%
Retail salespersons1,008,380$11.6312%17%
Security guards897,150$13.7033%17%
Home health aides775,890$11.6337%17%
Landscaping and groundskeeping workers751,150$13.9411%33% 

Source: Brookings analysis of Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Emsi data

Essential work is defined as “work involving regular in-person interactions or regular physical handling of items that were also handled by others.” Treasury specifically prohibits awards to teleworkers. Industries include: healthcare, public health and safety, childcare, education, sanitation, transportation, and food production and services.

Hazard pay for essential workers
Hazard pay for essential workers

Treasury says priority should be given to lower income essential workers and lists some examples including nursing home staff and home care workers; workers at farms, food production facilities, grocery stores, and restaurants; truck drivers, transit staff, and warehouse workers; and childcare workers.

In the case of private sector workers, their employers would be eligible to receive a grant from their state or local government for hazard pay.

Hazard pay mandates in cities

In recent months, city councils across California and elsewhere have been mandating a temporary pay raise for grocery workers, most recently in San Francisco. Stores like Whole Foods WFM 0.0%, Kroger KR -0.2%, and Safeway did give employees “hero pay” at the beginning of the pandemic. In most cases, it amounted to a couple of extra dollars hourly to recognize the risk they were taking. But that raise ended last summer while the pandemic has raged on.

“I have a compromised immune system and yet I go to work. And I’m not the only one with that story,” Alameda, California grocery employee Devin Ramos told USC Annenberg Media this week. (Alameda has not passed a hazard pay ordinance.)

The mandates have prompted lawsuits from the California Grocers Association, a trade group representing the industry. And in Washington State, Seattle and nearby Burien have also passed hazard pay ordinances, and both have been sued by industry groups there.

Do Essential Service Workers Qualify for Hazard Pay?

While much of America is working from home for the foreseeable future, there are still a number of people who must go to work, even during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of these employees may be wondering what hazard pay is and whether or not they’re entitled to it.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, hazard pay is “additional pay for performing a hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship.” While the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does mention hazard pay, it doesn’t provide a standardized rate.

All the same, hazard pay implies an additional pay rate to the standard rate. (Think of it like getting paid time-and-a-half overtime pay versus your normal pay.) Often when people think of hazard pay, they think of emergency responders.

Today, with the spread of coronavirus, our definition of emergency responders has changed — you may think of them as essential workers because their necessity is ongoing.

Emergency responders and workers on the front line of this situation include delivery drivers, couriers, grocery workers, and healthcare employees.

A number of companies have offered hazard pay to certain eligible employees. These companies include Amazon, Albertsons, Krogers, Safeway, and Whole Foods, according to ABC. That hazard pay amounts to an additional $2 per hour.

Hazard pay for essential workers

However, it is currently at the discretion of companies whether or not they provide hazard pay. Your employer will decide whether or not to pay their employees more. Due to the current economic situation, many employers say they are unable to do so.

So will essential service workers who go into their work during the pandemic get any kind of extra compensation or hazard pay? Maybe at the government level. Senate Democrats have proposed a $25,000 hazard pay plan for essential workers.

Hazard pay for essential workers

In this plan, doctors, nurses, truck drivers, janitors, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers would receive roughly a $13 hourly bonus.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said this would be called the Heroes Fund and would apply retroactively to the courageous workers keeping our society functioning.

According to The Hill, the benefit “would be capped at $25,000 for workers earning less than $200,000 per year and at $5,000 for those earning more than $200,000.”

This proposal also includes a provision offering benefits to families of essential workers who have died as a result of coronavirus.

“As the COVID pandemic has reached alarming new levels, our healthcare system is strained to the max, our economy is strained to the max.

Hazard pay for essential workers
Hazard pay for essential workers

Doctors and nurses, medical personnel of all types are putting their lives on the line every single day to fight this disease and save others,” Schumer said on a conference call. “And so are people not in the medical profession but in essential services: grocery store workers, truck drivers, drug store workers, and pharmacists.”

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For many in these industries, working from home is not an option. The question now is how many of them will be reimbursed for braving a hazard few of us would care to face.


The failure of the federal government and most employers to provide hazard pay is especially detrimental to low-wage workers, who comprise nearly half of all frontline essential workers. As the pandemic-fueled recession deepens, many of these low-wage workers face additional financial hardship on top of elevated risks of infection. Nearly half of these low-wage frontline workers are nonwhite, with Black and Latino or Hispanic workers overrepresented among critical jobs that pay less than a living wage.

Deeply rooted policy failures and structural problems underpin these inequities—from a woefully inadequate minimum wage to systemic racism to the long-term erosion of worker power. Hazard pay is an immediate stopgap measure to ensure frontline workers earn a living wage as they shoulder extreme burdens. It’s a down payment on what should be permanent, lasting change through an increased minimum wage. Here’s how it can be done.

Hazard pay means additional pay for performing a 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. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address the subject of hazard pay, except to require that it be included as part of a federal employee’s regular rate of pay in computing the employee’s overtime pay.

Hazard pay for essential workers

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