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OPINION

Front-line health workers deserve ‘premium pay’

Only about 10 percent of the American Rescue Plan money is needed to bring relief to 200,000 hospital workers, 40,000 nursing home workers, and 20,000 community health center workers across the state.

Nurse Nadia Machado talks to a resident at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley while helping to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination in December.
Nurse Nadia Machado talks to a resident at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley while helping to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination in December.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The state will soon decide how to spend roughly $5.3 billion in federal coronavirus pandemic relief from the American Rescue Plan Act. No group deserves a share of that money more than the front-line health care workers who for the last year have cared for the sick while risking their own health and the health of their families.

Think of the last year from the point of view of these mostly-female, mostly-Black and Latina health care workers: Each day they cared for people with a potentially deadly virus that — for most of the year — had no vaccination. They worked for hourly wages, many without a safety net, and had limited sick time and little to no vacation time. Far too often, especially in the early months of the pandemic, when supplies were limited, some health care workers made do with repeated use of what in normal conditions was considered single-use personal protection equipment — masks, gloves, gowns. With schools closed, their children were home, but these parents could not stay with their children to help them navigate remote learning. Many were forced to lean on family and friends, reduce their hours, or leave the industry entirely. According to the Pew Research Center, women left the workforce at much higher numbers during the pandemic, with the effect even more pronounced among Black and Latinx women.

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When the workday was over, most of these women and men returned home to communities hardest hit by the virus — Chelsea, Brockton, Lawrence, Springfield, Lynn, and other Gateway Cities across the state — with many residents unemployed and having difficulty buying food and paying bills

Now, thankfully, President Biden and Congress have provided $350 billion nationally to help make people, communities, and providers whole in the wake of the pandemic, empowering states to decide how those dollars will be spent. Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano rightly said these dollars should go to “those most impacted by COVID-19,” and guidance from the White House, Congress, and the US Treasury have all indicated that hard-hit front-line workers need to be cared for with this money.

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Only about 10 percent of the American Rescue Plan money is needed to give what Congress and Biden have termed “premium pay” to 200,000 hospital workers, 40,000 nursing home workers, and 20,000 community health center workers across the state. Direct care workers — including nurses, unlicensed assistive personnel, service, maintenance, clerical, professional, and technical workers — all should receive that “premium pay,” one-time bonuses of between $1,000 and $3,000, based on the number of hours worked during the pandemic. It would also have a positive impact on families and communities of color — a key point in an age seeking to promote racial equity.

In addition to those who work in health care facilities, those in home care — including personal care attendants and home health aides — also deserve premium pay. Our health care system would have collapsed without the support and care provided by the home care workforce for people with disabilities and the elderly at home. Home care workers may not be as visible as their counterparts in hospitals and nursing homes, but their roles are just as valuable, and federal stimulus dollars should be used to support them and their families.

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Over the next few months, the Legislature will determine how to use the American Rescue Plan money and who to invest in following the worst health crisis of our lifetime. The workers who spent the last year on the front line have earned their place at the front of this line. This is a chance for the entire health care community to advocate for honoring these health care heroes with action.

Tim Foley is executive vice President of SEIU 1199. Kiame Mahaniah is CEO of the Lynn Community Health Center.