New York State

Which workers could get hazard pay?

Officials are calling for bonuses for front-line workers, but nobody agrees on who that is.

Medical workers at Richmond University Medical Center on April 20th.

Medical workers at Richmond University Medical Center on April 20th. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the bipartisan chorus of voices clamoring for front-line workers to receive hazard pay – though officials haven’t agreed on exactly which workers might be eligible for such a bonus.

“Thanks is nice, but recognition of their efforts and their sacrifice is appropriate,” Cuomo said during his press conference, calling on the federal government to include financing for a 50% hazard pay bonus for all the state’s essential workers in its next stimulus package. “They’re the ones that are carrying us through this crisis."

Hazard pay is defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship.” Typically, members of the military who perform more dangerous duties like parachute jumpers may receive extra pay, as well as those who work in construction and mining industries or in war zones because of how dangerous their work can be. It’s not a legally mandated bonus – whether or not someone receives hazard pay, regardless of their industry, is ultimately up to their employer

President Donald Trump’s administration has shown an interest in providing health care workers with some sort of bonus, The Washington Post reported on April 1. "I think it's something we are discussing in terms of bonus or bonus pay," Trump told ABC News three weeks ago. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has also said that hazard pay for first responders is “definitely something we’ll put in the next bill,” referring to a fourth stimulus package. 

Congressional Democrats have also been big supporters of providing essential workers with hazard pay. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for hazard pay to be included in the next stimulus package – though his primary concern has been ensuring that health care workers receive the bonus. While Congress hasn’t said which essential workers would receive hazard pay, it’s been reported that medical, maintenance, postal, delivery, transit and grocery store workers might all be entitled to a bonus.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes sent a letter signed by 42 other state lawmakers to the state’s congressional delegates asking that hazard pay for essential workers in New York be prioritized in Congress’ next stimulus package. “As you consider the phase four of the Coronavirus relief bill, we write to express our strong support for the proposed plan for a robust Heroes Fund to provide hazard pay for essential workers on the front lines of this pandemic,” the letter reads.

The letter also requests that such “Heroes Fund” benefits also extend “to any gig or freelance workers serving an essential role, including delivery workers, freelance journalists/photojournalists and drivers.”

“Look at the statistics of the number of public workers who have passed away from COVID-19, look at the statistics of the number of health care workers who are getting sick and passing away from COVID-19,” Gounardes told City & State. “They are literally putting their lives on the line for us and many of them before this crisis even began were underpaid.”

State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas similarly penned a letter to Cuomo, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on April 14, asking that a certain amount of federal funding to the state be set aside for hazard pay. “Hazard pay is, of course, a small monetary gesture, but it would help us recognize (essential workers’) work by compensating them in a deserving way,” Ramos told City & State.

With the state short billions of dollars thanks to the coronavirus crisis, it's doubtful that the state would be able to afford bonuses for its untold number of essential workers – although it wouldn’t necessarily be impossible, Gounardes argued. “I would argue that this is the precise moment when we should be having honest and earnest conversations around increasing revenue in the state of New York and the city of New York and having that revenue go toward paying workers fairly and toward closing gaps in the health care system,” he said.

Some private companies have already been offering hazard pay without encouragement from the local or federal government. Amazon, Whole Foods, Albertsons, Kroger and Safeway have all been offering increased pay to their employees during the pandemic. And some private hospital chains in New York, such as Northwell, have already given their health care workers bonuses for combating the virus.

Unions representing essential workers acrossthe country have already been campaigning for hazard pay amid the coronavirus crisis. While hazard pay may be included in some organized labor contracts, it's unlikely that most unions had previously bargained for hazard pay. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has been pushing to ensure that its members, most of whom have been deemed essential workers, are receiving pay that reflects the risks they’re taking on the job. “Our members are putting their own lives on the line to keep us safe and fed. They deserve more than just our thanks and gratitude in these challenging times,” the union said in a statement demanding that the Kraft Heinz Company provide its workers with “essential pay.”

Ramos and Gounardes are also set on ensuring that undocumented and gig workers receive bonus hazard pay. Reports have detailed the risks faced by workers living in the country illegally during the crisis, especially when they can’t access government relief funds. “We're also, of course, asking the governor to make sure that some of the federal stimulus money is allocated towards (undocumented, freelance and gig workers),” Ramos said. “He is the one who is the decision maker, obviously, and he has already expressed agreement to me and Aravella Simotas and we're very happy that he's on board. We just want to make sure that he follows through on his word.”