$25,000 essential-worker ‘Heroes Fund’ seeks Republican support

U.S. Senate Democrats proposing up to $25,000 in additional pay for truck drivers and other essential “front-line” private-sector employees are looking for support for the measure from Republicans.

Unveiled Tuesday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and five Democratic colleagues, the COVID-19 Heroes Fund would provide $13 per hour in additional wages directly to eligible employers considered to be an essential industry during the coronavirus emergency, who would then distribute the money to their employees.

According to a white paper outlining the proposal, while the definition of an “essential work” industry for the purposes of the fund’s eligibility “will be the subject of debate,” Schumer said truck drivers would qualify.

“This is not just for medical and health care personnel on the front lines,” he said during a press conference. “We have janitors who disinfect our medical facilities, truck drivers who deliver supplies where they need to go, grocery store clerks who keep food on the shelves of American pantries, transit workers who keep the trains and buses running, and many more. They will all be entitled to this premium pay.”

What was not made clear in the proposal is whether truck drivers delivering nonessential freight would be considered “front-line” workers, and how drivers who are deemed eligible would receive money from the fund, given that truck drivers are typically paid by the mile and not by the hour.

Speaking on background, a Capitol Hill source familiar with the plan said that regarding the trucking industry, the fund is meant to include all drivers. “A deal will still need to be negotiated with Republicans, but Senate Dems plan to push for the $13-per-hour rate,” the source told FreightWaves. “And if that rate doesn’t fit some industries, Democrats want to work out an equivalent way of calculating the Pandemic Premium Pay to ensure those workers get the same benefit.”

Each essential front-line worker would receive premium pay on top of regular wages for all hours worked in essential industries through the end of 2020. The fund would cap the total maximum premium pay at $25,000 for each essential front-line worker earning less than $200,000 per year and $5,000 for those earning $200,000 or more, according to the plan.

Employers applying for funds would add line-item premium pay to employees’ or independent contractors’ paychecks, the proposal states. Employers would be responsible for tracking payments, providing payroll records, and returning any unspent funds to the agency that oversees the program.

A hurdle to advancing the measure is getting buy-in from the other side of the aisle. Asked if he had spoken with Republicans, Schumer told reporters that “we hope that our Republican colleagues will join us, noting that this fund is so very needed. We’ll try to round up support.”

Schumer told reporters that the Heroes Fund should be part of a fourth relief package that Congress is currently considering. The third package, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, was signed by President Donald Trump on March 27. “No proposal will be complete without addressing the needs of our essential workers by giving them pandemic premium payments,” he said.

Schumer was also asked if he would hold back support for boosting the Paycheck Protection Program by an additional $250 billion for small businesses — which Republicans are reportedly looking to fast-track — if Republicans did not support the Heroes Fund. “All I’m going to say is that [the Heroes Fund] is one of our very, very highest priorities going forward,” he responded. 

A second piece to the proposal, a $15,000 essential worker recruitment incentive to attract more workers to fight the COVID-19 crisis, would be limited to healthcare employees and first responders.