Senate Democrats unveiled a “Heroes Fund” on Tuesday, April 7. The legislation, announced by Minority Leader Schumer, would create a federally funded program that would allow a $25,000 premium pay increase for essential workers. It would also pay for a $15,000 worker recruitment incentive grant to workers. According to information provided by bill sponsors, employers in industries considered “essential work” would apply to the federal fund for federal dollars to be used to add line-item premium pay to employees’ or independent contractors’ paychecks. The eligible employer would track these payments, provide payroll records demonstrating premium payments, and return any unspent funds. No employer would be required to participate.

According to information released by Senate sponsors, “an entity that contracts directly with the state, locality, Tribe, or the federal government (e.g., to provide care to people with Medicare and Medicaid coverage) would be considered a private-sector employer, and employees of this entity who are designated as “essential” would be eligible for premium pay.”

The $25,000 pandemic premium pay increase would be for essential frontline workers, the equivalent of a raise of an additional $13 per hour from the start of the public health emergency until December 31, 2020. The additional pay would be on top of regular wages for all hours worked in essential industries through the end of 2020. The pay would be capped at $25,000 for each essential frontline worker earning less than $200,000 per year and $5,000 for each essential worker earning $200,000 or more per year.

Democrats argue that there is precedent for such action citing past FEMA funding through the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Response and Emergency Assistance Act and the Disaster Relief Fund. FEMA has reimbursed state, local, and tribal governments for straight-time and premium pay associated with disaster response.
The legislation includes cosponsorship by key committee leadership, including Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) and Schumer. Schumer said that “Essential frontline workers sacrifice daily for our collective health and well-being, and Senate Democrats are fully committed to supplying these heroes the financial support they deserve.”

The definition of “essential frontline workers” has not yet been defined. Child welfare workers from child protective services, social workers, and caseworkers assisting families with prevention services, adoption support, and foster parent and relative caregivers face a range of risks during this pandemic, and it is not easily defined. First-responders and emergency responders may trigger certain legal requirements based on court rulings, labor agreements, and other past emergencies (think caseworkers and opioid epidemic).

Some workers are at more elevated risk. For example, child protective services workers may be at higher risk than the social worker who can conduct virtual visits using technology to continue prevention or adoption or foster care support services. Although this can be a challenge if in-person meetings are important and critical to reunify the family (half of all foster care placements).

Child protective services workers investigating a complaint of child abuse may not be able to utilize tools such as virtual visits. If they do not have access to personal protective equipment and some items as basic as thermometers to take temperatures, they still may have to risk exposure to COVID-19 and potentially to their family members. It is a challenging discussion but is crucial as dedicated workers from primary prevention, child protective services, adoption, foster care, relative care, and caseworkers assisting young transitioning from foster care are ALL providing critical services that can easily be forgotten.