Can you collect hazard pay if you are exposed to coronavirus? Here's everything you need to know
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As major cities have come to a halt, unemployment for people who can’t work from home has skyrocketed. Because of this, our economy—as well as the life we knew before coronavirus (COVID-19)—has changed drastically. As of Thursday, March 26th, over three million American workers filed for unemployment last week alone, according to The New York Times. According to the Labor Department, that number is the highest in history, far surpassing the previous high in 1982 during the early ’80s recession, when 695,000 people filed for unemployment. And while that three million figure is extraordinarily high, it also doesn’t take into account the week before or the weeks that will follow.
If you’re one of the millions of people in the U.S. who are suddenly without a job, or if you’re still working under hazardous conditions due to the coronavirus, and you’re wondering how you can be compensated, there are a few things you should know. Unemployment and hazard pay are not the same, and this explainer will help you figure out how and where to seek the financial compensation you deserve.
In addition to unemployment benefits, people who have certain types of jobs that are considered hazardous and dangerous are eligible for hazard pay as well. “Hazard pay is designed to give employees additional money as compensation for dangerous risks that they are taking on,” Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet, tells HelloGiggles. “It’s most common in jobs where people’s lives are at risk, such as in construction or in war zones.”
Unlike with unemployment, you don’t have to be laid off or injured on the job in order to receive hazard pay. “Some jobs come with hazard pay built into their pay structures,” Palmer says. “For example, if you work in a dangerous construction job, it could come with a 10% additional pay for hazard pay.” However, the percentage cannot exceed 25% of a person’s daily pay rate.
Hazard pay is structured into your hourly pay rate. What this means is that for any day—or even partial day—within the calendar year that an employee is exposed to hazardous conditions recognized by the company, hazard pay will be reflected in paychecks for the time the employee was exposed. But just because someone has hazard pay doesn’t mean that every hour they work is necessarily hazardous. If a worker spends half the day in the office, then half the day outside doing construction work that is deemed dangerous, the employee would only receive hazard pay for the latter half of the day.
While the government does require that there be unemployment benefits for those who lose their job through no fault of their own, the government doesn’t require hazard pay, no matter how risky the position for injury or health. According to the Department of Labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act “does not address the subject of hazard pay, except to require that it be included as part of a federal employee’s regular rate of pay in computing the employee’s overtime pay.” In other words, if you work at a federal job, like at the post office, and you work overtime, hazard pay is included. But anyone who actually works under hazardous conditions, for non-federal jobs, has to negotiate hazard pay themselves with their employer or work for a company that includes it. As Palmer points out, if companies have their employees risking their lives in war zones or on construction sites, hazard pay comes with the territory, and responsible owners of these types of companies know that.
“[Hazard pay] is typically negotiated by employees or unions,” Palmer says. “If it’s something you think you should have because your job is risky, then you can talk to your employer about it,” adding that the best time to negotiate hazard pay is before you accept a job. This way, if you know you’re doing a job where the risk of hazardous conditions is high, you can be compensated accordingly.
With coronavirus, we’re dealing with a whole new type of hazardous condition that many employees are working under, which can redefine hazard pay in some instances, but not in all.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are a lot of stipulations involved when trying to claim hazard pay in relation to the coronavirus. First, you have to prove that you’re being exposed to it, which can be difficult given the shortage in testing. If you come down with coronavirus, you likely won’t be able to pinpoint that you got it from your job, making it nearly impossible to prove that you’re eligible for hazard pay in the eyes of HUD. There’s also the fact that even if you contract coronavirus because your job didn’t provide protective gear to prevent it, that doesn’t mean you’re currently eligible to receive hazard pay.
Even in instances of delivery workers, as well as doctors and nurses who are on the front lines fighting coronavirus, there’s no current law mandating hazard pay. According to Palmer, “It’s up to employees or unions to negotiate for it. Traditionally, healthcare workers do not generally earn hazard pay.”
But, due to COVID-19, the Democrats vowed to make hazard pay mandatory for anyone who might be exposed to the virus, something the Senate didn’t want to be included in the stimulus package. Currently, the package that Trump has approved and put into law does not include considerations for hazard pay compensation for workers exposed to COVID-19. But Democrats hope to include hazard pay in upcoming coronavirus legislation for federal employees who are treating patients who have the virus—like the TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Whether that will be pushed into law is still not certain.
Fortunately, there are some companies who have been stepping up to the plate voluntarily. “Amid the coronavirus pandemic, some companies have offered additional pay to workers who are taking on risks by coming to work,” Palmer says. “For example, CVS has offered bonuses to some of its workers, [and so have] Amazon, Walmart, and Kroger.” Amazon, for example, is raising their hourly wage by $2.00 for both warehouse and delivery drivers through the month of April.
As Palmer explains, these companies aren’t necessarily calling these bonuses “hazard pay,” but the people who are putting their lives (and their families’ lives) in jeopardy by taking these risks absolutely deserve to be compensated. As Palmer says, “The additional pay can help offset some of the stress of working.”
Although Palmer does point out that hazard pay should be something that’s discussed before you start a job, considering the predicament we’re in right now, there may be some leeway. If you’re working in a job that puts your safety at risk and your company isn’t providing extra money, then it’s time to talk to your boss.
“If you are asking for more [money], you need to define the problem you want the company to solve, and [also] tell them what you need to solve it,” Professor Alexandra Carter, director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School and author of Ask for More: Ten Questions to Negotiate Anything, tells HelloGiggles in regards to talking to your boss about hazardous conditions you’re working in due to coronavirus. Carter suggests giving your boss an example: “’As you know, we at X company have been working overtime during the most dangerous time in history to make sure we can keep serving our customers. This is what we need to protect our employees’ financial and medical health at this time.’”
If this falls on deaf ears, Carter says not to give up. Instead, ask questions about their concerns in regards to a raise or hazard pay. Once you hear the reasons, this can give you the opportunity to propose something else, like additional sick leave. Carter also suggests asking the company to participate in a search for a solution that will work out for everyone. “And if that still doesn’t work, I’d try focusing them on what they have to lose,” Carter says.
If you can’t negotiate hazard pay, a raise, or additional sick leave, then maybe it’s time to find another place to work. As of last week, Amazon was looking to hire 100,000 workers. They’re planning to start these new workers at a higher salary, and Amazon is also on the list of employers offering bonus pay. For many, having a job is the difference between having food and going hungry, having electricity or falling behind on bills. It’s important to know your rights as an employee, and what you’re entitled to, especially during these uncertain times.