Mitt Romney proposes hazard pay alternative for frontline workers

As Democrats call for hazard pay for workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, Sen. Mitt Romney is approaching the issue from a slightly different angle.

The Utah Republican and former Massachusetts governor released a proposal Friday to provide certain essential workers a bonus of up to $12 an hour for the next three months through a refundable payroll tax credit. The plan, which Romney dubbed “Patriot Pay,” is intended to compensate those whose jobs require them to risk their own health in the midst of the pandemic — such as health care and grocery store workers.

“Patriot Pay is a way for us to reward our essential workers as they continue to keep Americans safe, healthy, and fed,” Romney said in a statement.

The proposal comes as negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package ramp up in Congress.

Last month, Senate Democrats released their own plan to provide hazard pay bonuses to frontline workers equivalent to $13 an hour through the rest of the year. Their proposal would be fully funded by the federal government and provide some amount of premium pay to all frontline workers; those making under $200,000 a year could receive up to $25,000, while workers making above that threshold would see their hazard pay bonus capped at $5,000.

Romeny’s proposal is more limited, and depends on employers picking up part of the tab.

For workers making less than $50,000 a year, eligible employers would receive a 75 percent refundable payroll tax credit for bonuses of up to $12 an hour. Romney says they would apply for the tax refund through a recently created paid leave tax credit system that would streamline the claim and reimburse them. In other words, the government would effectively triple-match any bonuses of up to $3 an hour to frontline workers.

“This form of hazard pay would complement, not replace, an employer’s responsibility to pay their workers—it is designed to quadruple any bonuses an employer gives to essential workers,” Romney’s office said in a document outlining the plan.

Eligible employers would qualify for tax credits for employee bonuses provided from the beginning of May through the end of July. According to Romney’s office, full-time workers making under $50,000 a year could receive a monthly bonus of up to $1,920 — or $5,760 over the course of the three months — if employers fully utilized the tax credit.

The credits would gradually phase out for workers making between $50,000 and $90,000 a year; bonuses for those making more than $90,000 a year would not be eligible for the refund. Employees would have to work at least 100 hours each month they receive the bonus for their wages to be eligible for the tax credit, according to Romney’s office (which noted that the recent temporary boost to unemployment insurance has resulted in weekly benefits that outpace what many employed frontline workers earn).

It’s still unclear exactly which frontline workers would qualify under either hazard pay plan.

Romney’s office says that Congress and the Department of Labor would designate critical industries, including hospitals, food distributors and processors, and health manufacturers. Their one-pager also makes a passing reference to transportation workers.

Senate Democrats say they’re still seeking input on “the universe of ‘essential workers’ to be covered.” Their plan also includes a $15,000 one-time signing bonus to recruit more essential health and home care workers, as well as “first responders that are experiencing severe staffing shortages.”

Democrats said they were still working on the specific delivery mechanism for their “Heroes Fund” pay. However, generally, eligible employers — businesses, states, municipalities, tribes — would be encouraged to apply for money from the fund. They would then have to provide payroll records demonstrating that the money went to hazard pay premiums and any unspent money would be required to be returned to the fund.

While the two plans do have significant differences in scope and structure, Romney is the closest thing to bipartisan consensus on the subject of hazard pay for frontline workers, which has not been included in the previous coronavirus relief packages. In contrast, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, has insisted for a provision shielding businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits in the next bill.

“Health care professionals, grocery store workers, food processors, and many others—the unsung patriots on the frontline of this pandemic—every day risk their safety for the health and well-being of our country, and they deserve our unwavering support,” Romney said Friday.

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