Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III wants to create a fund to compensate essential workers for financial losses incurred after falling ill from COVID-19, and offer death benefits to the families of workers who have died from the disease during the pandemic.
The proposal, to be released Thursday, would provide $250,000 to the family of any essential worker who died from COVID-19, plus an additional $100,000 each for the worker’s spouse and children. The program would also forgive any private student loan debt held by the worker, and cover burial costs.
For workers who fall ill, the fund would provide compensation for loss of their earnings, medical expenses, and services if the person cannot complete household tasks. Kennedy’s proposal did not include a cost estimate.
“Workers thrust into the depths of this global pandemic did not ask to be heroes, but their jobs and this moment demanded it. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died because we were not prepared for the devastation COVID-19 would bring to our country," Kennedy said in a statement announcing the proposal, called the COVID-19 Worker Benefits Program.
"And now, as many states begin to prematurely reopen their economies, millions more workers will be forced to put their lives at risk. If governments are willing to ask these workers to potentially sacrifice their lives for our economic well-being, we cannot turn our backs when grieving families demand justice,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken an especially large toll on those who cannot work from home, like health care workers, grocery store associates, and others whose workplaces stayed open as other businesses shut down. An April ACLU Massachusetts analysis found that rates of coronavirus were especially high in Boston neighborhoods with a high concentration of people deemed essential workers. And in parts of Chelsea, the Massachusetts city that has been hardest hit by the pandemic, more than 70 percent of the workforce was employed in an essential industry, the analysis found.
Across the country, thousands of health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 88 nurses have died, according to National Nurses United. In grocery stores, at least 65 workers have died from the disease, according to a May 15 estimate from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents more than 1 million employees of grocery stores and retailers. The transportation sector has also been hit hard, with dozens of transit workers dead in New York City alone.
Kennedy said the fund is modeled on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides benefits to victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks and to those who were exposed to toxic debris that filled the air in lower Manhattan and elsewhere in their aftermath.
The latest coronavirus relief efforts have increasingly centered around compensation for essential workers, who are often low paid and sometimes lack basic protections like paid sick leave. Last week, a group of lawmakers including Senator Ed Markey, whom Kennedy is challenging in Massachusetts’ September primary, proposed a similar fund. It also is modeled on the Sept. 11 victims’ fund and would cover economic losses sustained by infected essential workers or members of their households.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah this month proposed a “Patriot Pay” plan that would give low-wage essential workers a bonus of up to $12 per hour in May, June, and July. In the House, the recently passed $3 trillion HEROES Act would include $200 billion hazard pay for essential workers.
According to a Kennedy aide, the COVID-19 Worker Benefits Program would go further than those proposals, providing a substantial death benefit to families of workers who die after contracting COVID-19 and forgiving student loan debt.