U.S. Rep Summer Lee, D-12th District, introduced legislation on Thursday that would provide hazard pay and other protections for essential healthcare workers in emergency or disaster situations.
The Hazard Pay for Health Care Heroes Act, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ed Markey D-Mass, would include not only doctors and nurses at hospitals, but home care workers, medical technologists, and environmental services staff.
“I’ve been fighting for fair wages and safe conditions for our hospital workers from my time as an organizer and state legislator all the way to Congress,” Lee said in a statement. “Every time disaster strikes, our health care workers show up for us–even when it means putting their own lives at risk. It’s time we show up for them with pay and protection, not just bells and whistles.”
Under the legislation, the first Lee has introduced as a member of Congress as a primary sponsor, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services would be empowered to issue grants for hazard pay of up to $13 per hour or up to $25,000 per year, and fund additional safety measures like personal protective equipment, which was in short supply during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Health care workers are on the frontlines of our nation’s dual public health and climate crises, treating and tending to communities hit hardest by extreme weather and environmental disasters,” Markey said in a statement. “These heroes deserve more than our gratitude—they deserve better pay and stronger protections.”
The provisions would apply to “the full spectrum of workers in health care” who provide “immediate or undisrupted medical assistance” to patients during emergencies and extreme weather disasters.
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Lee’s news release pointed to a new study in the Environmental Science and Technology journal that found if a heat wave and power outage happened in Phoenix, Arizona at the same time, nearly 800,000 people would require emergency care in a city that currently has less than 3,000 emergency room beds.
“With public health and environmental crises from pandemics and train derailments to climate driven disasters becoming more frequent and more dangerous, we need bold action starting with the Hazard Pay for Health Care Workers Act to protect our health care workers, patients, and communities they care for by providing the hazard pay and safety tools they need to continue to keep our loved ones safe during emergencies,” Lee added.
During her tenure as a state representative and now in Congress, Lee has advocated for healthcare workers, often criticizing western Pennsylvania healthcare giant UPMC for staffing shortages.
She’s also pushed back against the healthcare company’s status as a nonprofit organization despite UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood receiving $246 million more in tax breaks than it spent on charity care and community investment in 2020.
Lee and state Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny released a report in January with the American Economic Liberties Project that found UPMC has attained “monopoly power” in the region.
And Lee joined with Markey and U.S. Rep Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who introduced the Green New Deal for Health last month, which would invest $130 billion over five years in community health centers, and authorize $100 billion in grants for public and nonprofit medical facilities to improve “climate resilience and disaster mitigation efforts.”
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In addition to hazard pay and protective equipment, the proposed Hazard Pay for Health Care Heroes Act would provide funding for “safer, alternative modes of transportation for health care workers, when their commutes are made hazardous by disaster.”
The legislation has the support of the SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which filed an antitrust complaint last week with the Department of Justice alleging UPMC has monopsony power which limits healthcare workers’ ability to find work if they leave the company.
“The next public health and climate related emergency will certainly show up and we need to be prepared and have our workforce ready to respond with all the resources and leadership we need,” Matt Yarnell, the president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania said in a statement.
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