Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives at a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas,  to be intelligence director. Collins was a lead author of the letter.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives at a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to be intelligence director. Collins was a lead author of the letter. Andrew Harnik / AP

Bipartisan Senate Group Urges Hazard Pay for Feds

Nineteen senators encourage authorization of a 25% pay increase for frontline federal workers during the coronavirus pandemic, along with more guidance enhancing telework, leave and other protections for employees.

A bipartisan group of 19 senators on Tuesday urged the Trump administration to authorize hazard pay for federal employees working on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic and encouraged it to act to enhance agencies’ use of workplace flexibilities to protect workers.

Led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the lawmakers wrote a letter to acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought and acting Office of Personnel Management Director Michael Rigas urging them to use “existing authority” to address issues facing federal employees both at home and at traditional federal worksites.

Chief among their demands was that the administration begin issuing a 25% hazardous pay differential to employees whose work cannot be done remotely. Although OPM has issued guidance suggesting that agencies may issue hazard pay to employees, frontline employees by and large have not seen action to that effect.

“We appreciate the OPM guidance on recruitment, retention and relocation bonuses in response to COVID-19, and we urge you to build on this by using existing hazard pay authority to provide a 25% increase in basic pay for employees in essential, frontline, or public-facing positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing recommendations,” the senators wrote. “The statute provides for hazardous pay differentials for duties involving unusual hazards that are not typical for the job, which certainly describes the current situation for many workers.”

The lawmakers also called on OPM and OMB to provide “further clarification” on other workplace flexibiltiies, like telework and weather and safety leave.

“Maximizing telework should generally enable telework for as many federal workers and contractor personnel as possible,” they wrote. “We also urge you to provide agencies with guidance to provide flexibility so that employees can adjust their schedules without a reduction in pay to accommodate needs to care for children and family members.”

They also suggested that weather and safety leave should be used more liberally by agencies, and not just in cases where an employee is deemed to be at a higher risk for complications resulting from a COVID-19 infection.

“Agencies should receive clear criteria to make greater use of safety leave, including how to weigh costs and benefits in order to reach a determination,” the lawmakers wrote. “In addition to employees defined as high risk by the CDC, who are referenced in the current OMB guidance on safety leave, federal agencies would benefit from guidance for consistent use of safety leave in other circumstances. Safety leave also has positive effects to mitigate community spread within federal facilities and surrounding communities.”

The senators also told the administration that it must do more to ensure that federal employees have access to personal protective equipment, and that agencies should reimburse contractors for the costs incurred from granting additional paid leave to their employees, and improve labor-management relations.

“We urge you to engage in consultation and collaboration with workers and their unions to develop and implement policies to address the issues covered in this letter and other workplace matters,” they wrote. “These workers are bearing the consequence of those policies now, and will continue to be the ones most impacted by the decisions that are made going forward.”