As Congress weighs hazard pay for pandemic’s front-line workers, advocates say it’s not enough
For months now as the coronavirus pandemic upended everyday life, people in Connecticut’s Latino and Black communities have done more than their share — and suffered more than their share — to keep hospitals operating, grocery stores open, buses running and nursing homes staffed.
And while some federal lawmakers are pushing for these essential workers to be acknowledged with hazard pay, advocates say more needs to be done.
Yanil Terón, executive director of the Hartford-based Center for Latino Progress, says the congressional effort to provide hazard pay for essential workers, so far, is “not good enough.”
She is concerned about the long-lasting effects of COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact the disease’s legacy will have on Black and Latino workers. “Like the first responders in 9-11, their health will be impacted for a long, long time.”
James Rawlings, the Connecticut NAACP Health Chair, agrees.
“These individuals will be significantly impaired,” he said. The full long-term impact of COVID-19 is not yet known and a one-time benefit would fall short of the help essential workers who’ve become ill will need over time, he said.
Like Terón, Rawlings would like some long-term funding for workers who provided a wide variety of essential services during the pandemic — often without enough personal protective equipment or safety protocols in place.
But Congress is expected to provide much more modest help, if any help at all.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is leading Senate Democrats in pressing for approval of a proposal which would provide a bonus of up to $25,000 for essential workers.
And Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has introduced a bill that would provide these workers with up to $1,920 a month in additional pay, maxing out at $5,760 after three months.
Under Romney’s bill, Congress and the Department of Labor would decide which workers and industries are deemed “essential” for eligibility purposes. Right now, Romney’s proposal indicates workers in hospitals, grocery stores and food processing plants, health manufacturing companies and others would be eligible
It’s still unclear if a hazard pay proposal will be included in Congress’s next stimulus package, which lawmakers are expected to negotiate after their July 4 break. But high death and infection rates among the nation’s minorities, which are still on the rise, are placing a lot of pressure on lawmakers.
At a recent visit to Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown to thank the workers there, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said “we owe you more than words. We owe you rewards and recognition.”
“We should reward you… for the sacrifices you are making,” Blumenthal said. “You risk your own lives for others.”
He and fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy support Schumer’s idea for a “Heroes Fund” that would provide a bonus to front-line workers. It is an element of the massive stimulus bill called the HEROES Act approved in the Democratic U.S. House.
The $200 billion fund would provide a retroactive $13 per hour pay premium on top of regular pay for “all hours worked in essential industries through the end of 2020″—up to $25,000 for those workers earning less than $200,000 per year, and up to $5,000 for workers earning more.
But the GOP-led Senate has ignored the House-approved HEROES Act and if a new, bipartisan stimulus bill can be crafted, it’s likely to contain a much less generous hazard pay fund.
CT Latinos have highest infection rate
In Connecticut, African Americans have an infection rate that is more than twice that of the state’s non-Hispanic white residents. But the Latino infection rate surpassed that of the state’s Black population after the state adjusted its COVID-19 data by age at the end of May.
Before the age adjustment, the state’s non-Hispanic white infection rate was 573 per 100,000, the Black infection rate was 1,332 per 100,000 and the Latino infection rate 1,218 per 100,000.
But Blacks — and even more so Latinos — are underrepresented in the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where many infections and death occurred, so the state made an adjustment for that.
When the adjustment was made, the state’s Latino’s were found to have the highest COVID-19 infection rate and the Black rate rose as well.
For instance, on Tuesday, the state said infection rate for Latinos was 1,656 per 100,000 and for Blacks it was 1,572 per 100,000. For the state’s non-Hispanic white residents it was a less than a third of that – 507 per 100,000.
The disparity is evident across the nation and is expected to continue.
There are several reasons why the nation’s minorities are so vulnerable.
“Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined, based on nationwide data of hospitalizations and coronavirus-linked deaths.
It showed that, across the nation, African Americans, American Indian or Alaska Native persons have a hospitalization and death rate approximately five times that of non-Hispanic white persons. Latinos have a rate approximately four times that of non-Hispanic white persons, the CDC reported.
Terón said minorities are more likely to work in “the low-wage sector,” as grocery store clerks, trash collectors and hospital workers, so they are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus.
Latinos also are more likely to live in crowded, multi-generational homes, making it easier for a sick worker to infect other family members.
Terón said the hazard pay measures considered by Congress “are nice, but not a long-term solution” to the health problems these workers may face, many of whom were uninsured or underinsured.
Latinos and African Americans are also prone to a number of underlying health conditions that increase their chances of developing severe COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization.
The National Institutes of Health has determined that, compared with non-Hispanic whites, Latinos have higher rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. And the CDC says younger African Americans are living with or dying of many conditions typically found in white Americans at older ages, including heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Terón said she would like all COVID-19 infections that can be traced to a workplace to be covered under an employer’s workers compensation coverage. She would also like the federal government to establish a multi-billion dollar fund, like the one Congress established for the 9-11 first responders, to pay for the long-term costs of COVID-19, including care for health problems essential workers may develop in later years.
More than 70,000 first responders who worked at ground zero enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program. About 32,000 of them developed diseases of the respiratory tract and nearly 9,000 have developed cancer.
Rawlings said essential workers were treated as if they were “expendable.”
“Its not short-term help they need,” he said. “It’s long-term.”
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