WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers announced Thursday they plan to introduce a bill that would create a compensation fund for essential workers and their family members who have been struck by the coronavirus.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act during a digital news conference. They were joined by union representatives from the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, Uniformed Firefighters Association, National Rural Letter Carriers Association, and SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
"Right now, workers all over this country are putting their lives on the line to help their sick neighbors, keep people fed, and keep our essential services running. Just as they are here for us, we need to be there for them if they get sick," Nadler said.
"America will be forever indebted to the first responders and essential workers who put their lives on the line throughout this pandemic," said King. "It is morally essential that Congress pass the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act for these heroes and their families."
The legislation would create a fund modeled on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to assist people whose jobs require them to continue to go to work during the pandemic and who become infected as a consequence.
Workers "across all industries" deemed essential by the government who became ill or died from the virus will be eligible, as will any infected family members who become infected by living with a worker who was determined essential. The funds could be used to help cover medical costs, loss of employment or business and funeral costs.
Maloney said health care costs would be covered for workers who had exhausted all other medical insurance options. She said a special master from the Justice Department would be appointed to run it and create an application process. She said it had yet to be determined how much money would be appropriated for the fund if the bill passed.
"While we have to do much more to protect these men and women as they take on greater risks during this pandemic, we also need to recognize the sad reality that our nation has a responsibility to take care of the loved ones of those essential workers who perish as a result of their decision to go back to work to help others," Duckworth said.
Last year, Maloney introduced legislation that was signed into law by President Donald Trump in July to reauthorize the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund through 2029. The fund was created after 9/11 to assist anyone hurt or killed in the terror attacks, which included those who were exposed to hazardous materials while assisting with the cleanup.
"On September 11th, it was the firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives. Today, it is hospital workers – nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers. We owe them more than applause at 7 p.m.," Maloney said Thursday.
The original 9/11 VCF operated from 2001-2004 and was reactivated in January 2011 under a bill signed into law by President Barack Obama, who four years later signed a bill reauthorizing it for five years. But the fund began to run out of money, which led to an emotional campaign to refinance it.
House Democrats this week introduced The Heroes Act, the latest and largest legislative effort to combat the economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 84,000 Americans.
The more than $3 trillion rescue bill would include nearly $1 trillion to assist state and local governments, a second round of direct $1,200 payments to individuals – this time with a household limit of $6,000 – and a $200 billion "heroes fund" that would give hazard pay to essential employees, such as first responders and front-line health workers. The latter provision would be separate from the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act introduced Thursday.
Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have called for a "pause" on approving additional money after already passing more than $2.4 trillion in coronavirus rescue packages. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called the Heroes Act a "liberal wish list” and "waste of taxpayer time" that "has no chance of becoming law."
Nadler said that the Compensation Act might stand a better chance of passing because it was separate from that package.
"Hopefully, we can avoid the Republican opposition to this bill that would accrue to it if it were part of the Heroes Act," Nadler said.
Nadler said he expected it would be easier to get passed than the 9/11 compensation fund because in that case, it took years to establish a link between people's illnesses and their work at ground zero, and some people perceived it as a "New York problem."
"I don't think anybody is going to deny that people all over the country who are doing what they have to do – who are serving, who are going into the nursing homes and the hospitals, who are being the police officers and the firefighters, undertaking risks – no one is going to deny that they're taking risks for us all the time, and no one is going to deny that this is a national problem," Nadler said.
Maloney said she expected "overwhelming support" because lawmakers from around the country represent essential workers who have become infected by the virus.
"The men and women on the front lines are putting themselves and their families' lives at risk for the safety of others. While these essential employees put themselves in harm’s way, it is only right that they are supported the way we all were after Sept. 11, 2001," said Jake Lemonda, president of the FDNY-Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
"Once again, this is not a New York issue – it’s a global pandemic which has placed our lives in the crosshairs."