According to the U.S. Department of Labor, hazard pay is defined as “additional pay for performing 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.” 

In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and other essential workers are certainly in extreme discomfort and distress that is in no way alleviated by protective devices, yet precious few have seen any additional pay for their ongoing sacrifices and life-threatening service. Should they? 

Who Should Get Hazard Pay? 

As Congress continues to debate whether hazard pay or so-called “premium pay” will be part of any pandemic relief bill to be passed in the second half of 2020 (such measures have so far  failed), the definition of who should receive such pay has been much discussed. 

In an article on Debt.org, essential workers were defined in the original HEROES Act that passed the Housebut not the Senate as, “any individual who does essential work either as an employee or independent contractor. It also states that such work does not include teleworking from home but involves regular, in-person interaction with patients, the general public or with co-workers who perform such work, or by regularly physically handling items handled by patients, the public or co-workers who do that.”

A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that approximately 29% of workers were receiving some form of extra compensation due to the pandemic. The study concluded: 

“There is pervasive fear among workers of bringing the coronavirus home from work, especially among vulnerable workers with the least bargaining power, such as Black and Hispanic workers and low- and middle-income workers. These workers are not being protected by OSHA-established standards and they are also not receiving additional compensation in proportion to the risks they face. Workers are, however, being forced to work in order to sustain their families, and many are being denied unemployment benefits for not being willing to go to jobs they consider unsafe (Healy 2020). Workers are thus being forced to make unacceptable choices between economic sustenance and their health and their family’s health, a squeeze targeted at those with the least power in the labor market. Policies to protect workers’ health on the job as well as to provide decent pay and income maintenance are essential.”

Nurses and first responders often seem to be at the top of most lists of essential workers who are putting their lives on the line to help their fellow citizens, yet the definition of what an essential worker is can and should be quite more expansive than nurses and their healthcare colleagues.

Some unsung heroes of the COVID-19 healthcare frontlines are environmental service workers (sometimes known as housekeepers, maintenance and laundry workers, janitors, and related positions), as well as those who deliver meals and otherwise support patient care in doubtless essential ways that obviously keep healthcare facilities running smoothly. 

Other essential workers identified in various lists include those employed in: grocery stores, group homes for the developmentally disabled, waste disposal, dental offices, food production, package and mail delivery, gas stations, auto and bike repair, homeless shelters, disinfecting services, clinical research, hazardous materials, polls during elections, transportation, pharmacies, and many others.  

If we were to parse which workers should receive hazard pay or not, is there anyone mentioned above who is less deserving than another? While some unions have been able to negotiate such pay for their members, the conversation in Washington has been stuck in neutral throughout the pandemic. 

Nurses and Hazard Pay

Nurses certainly deserve pandemic-related hazard pay, as do their colleagues in both the clinical and non-clinical support realms. As of this writing, it appears that Congress and the federal government are undecided regarding how or whether to move forward with legislation that would support such an economic lifeline for countless Americans. 

While some nurses may belong to unions or work for employers who place a high enough value on their contributions during a globally existential threat to show that appreciation financially, most apparently do not.

For those hoping for additional pay akin to what unemployed Americans received in the first half of 2020 (an additional $600 per week on top of state benefits), few will likely be holding their breath. 

Nurses and other essential workers will continue to show up for work to feed their families and keep the lights on, as well as feeling called to do so as a moral and ethical obligation to society. Whether those individuals ever receive hazard pay from the government for going above and beyond the call of duty, we will eternally bow deeply in gratitude for their service.