The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on the moral indignity facing millions of essential workers who perform jobs vital to the country at great risk to themselves and their families, but without adequate protections or wages that meet even basic expenses.

From housekeeping to grocery retail to care work, these risky, essential jobs are disproportionately low-paying. Using our colleagues Adie Tomer and Joseph W. Kane’s essential worker classification and 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we found that 22.3 million essential workers were in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 an hour—comprising approximately half (47%) of all workers in these low-wage occupations. Black and brown workers are overrepresented among essential workers in low-wage frontline positions that pose health risks.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders in Washington, D.C. have voiced their enthusiastic commitment to support the country’s essential workers. President Joe BidenVice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have each emphasized that it isn’t enough just to praise essential workers—we must pay and protect them as well. But one year into the pandemic, there’s still much work to be done.

The following seven policy recommendations are aimed at properly paying essential workers, protecting them with adequate health and safety measures, and empowering them to have a greater voice in the workplace.

  1. Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. Wages for essential care workers are so low that nearly 20% of them live in poverty, and more than 40% rely on some form of public assistance. A $15 per hour federal minimum wage would disproportionately benefit essential workers such as cashiers, care workers, security guards, warehouse workers, retail staff, nursing assistants, and cleaners. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that a $15 federal minimum wage would lift the pay of 32 million workers, over 60% of whom are essential or frontline workers.
  2. Make the expanded EITC and Child Tax Credit permanent. The American Rescue Plan includes one-year expansions of two anti-poverty programs that benefit some (but not all) low-wage essential workers: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit. The expanded Child Tax Credit will boost income for millions of low-wage households with children, including some frontline essential workers, and will dramatically cut child poverty. Congress should make these expansions permanent.
  3. State and local governments should leverage federal funds for temporary hazard pay. While the American Rescue Plan did not include dedicated federal funding for hazard pay, it provided $350 billion in generous state and local aid. State and local governments should use this funding to provide hazard pay compensation to low- and modest-wage essential workers.
  4. Accelerate efforts to enforce worker safety standards and protect whistleblowers. The Biden administration’s Department of Labor should accelerate efforts to investigate workplace safety concerns. It should also issue an Emergency Temporary Standard requiring employers to create and implement plans to keep workers safe from COVID-19, building on an executive order calling on the Department of Labor to consider such a standard.
  5. State and local governments should prioritize essential workers in vaccine access. In December, the CDC issued guidance suggesting frontline essential workers be among the first to be vaccinated. But most states abandoned these guidelines, pushing essential workers back in the queue. As vaccine supply widens, state and local governments should prioritize frontline essential workers.
  6. Expand paid leave. While workers of all incomes are vulnerable to COVID-19, low-wage workers have the least access to paid leave if they (or someone they care for) fall ill. The lack of paid leave puts frontline workers in the position of choosing between their health and their paycheck, or their family members’ care and their job. Congress should pass a national, permanent paid leave program to allow essential workers to care for themselves and their loved ones.
  7. Strengthen labor laws to enable more worker representation and collective bargaining.  Last week, the White House issued a statement backing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The legislation would enable more workers to form a union, gain collective bargaining rights, exert greater power in disputes, and exercise their right to strike, while curbing employers’ retaliation and interference. Congress should reform decades-old labor laws to allow many more workers to access the protection of unions and representation.

Read the full article about empowering essential workers by Molly Kinder and Laura Stateler at Brookings.