New House COVID-19 Bill Includes Hazard Pay for Feds, Strengthens Protections for Telework and Sick Leave

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks about the Heroes Act  May 12, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks about the Heroes Act May 12, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Saul Loeb/Pool via AP

Pelosi on Tuesday unveiled legislation that would provide up to $10,000 in premium pay for federal workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak and would prevent agencies from exempting employees from paid sick leave benefits.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday unveiled a $3 trillion bill aimed at continuing the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic which, in addition to a variety of stimulus payments, state and local government aid, and additional federal agency spending, seeks to provide frontline federal workers with hazard pay and expands other protections for employees.

Although the White House and Senate Republicans have balked at considering another round of COVID-19 response legislation in recent days, Pelosi said lawmakers must act now if the country is to successfully navigate the crisis.

“We must think big for the people now, because if we don’t, it will cost more in lives and livelihood later,” she said. “Not acting is the most expensive course. So we’re presenting a plan to do what is necessary to deal with the crisis and make sure we can get the country back to work and to school safely.”

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (H.R. 6800) contains a number of provisions improving benefits and protections for federal employees working remotely and those continuing to report to their normal worksites to combat the pandemic.

First, the bill provides hazard pay, long demanded by federal employee groups and Democratic lawmakers, to federal and private sector workers alike whose jobs cannot be done via telework and require interaction with the public in some form. The so-called Heroes Fund would provide agencies and private employers with money to pay essential workers an extra $13 per hour, up to $10,000 in most cases, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, retroactive to Jan. 27. Essential workers who already make at least $200,000 would only be eligible for up to $5,000 in premium pay.

“Covered duty is defined by any duty that requires an employee to have regular or routine contact with the public or the reporting of an employee to a worksite at which social distancing is not possible, consistent with the regularly assigned duties of the position of the employee and [when] other preventative measures with respect to COVID-19 are not available,” lawmakers stated in a summary of the bill.

There are some caveats, however. Political appointees, members of Congress and congressional staff are not eligible for the hazard pay. And although the new hazard pay would not supplant other premium pay opportunities for federal workers, the aggregate of hazard pay and previously existing premium pay cannot exceed the annual premium pay cap.

Under the legislation, the Office of Personnel Management would be responsible for determining an employee’s eligibility for hazard pay and implementing regulations.

The bill also would establish that if employees whose duties require “substantial contact” with the public are diagnosed with COVID-19, they will be presumed as having contracted the virus in the workplace, for the purpose of workers’ compensation benefits. Currently, the Labor Department applies this rubric only in cases where an employee is engaged in “high-risk employment” like law enforcement, health care and other first responder jobs.

The legislation expands the applicability of two sick leave programs recently enacted as part of the previous coronavirus response bills, blocking the Office of Management and Budget from excluding certain federal employees from both the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, which provide partial paid leave for up to 12 weeks and full paid leave for two weeks, respectively.

It also would codify that employees at the Veterans Affairs Department and Transportation Security Administration, whose workforces are not covered by Title 5 federal personnel rules, are eligible for emergency paid sick leave.

The legislation further strengthens language encouraging the expansion of telework at both agencies and federal contract firms. It “requires” agency leaders to allow telework for all eligible employees, and mandates that they allow contractors to telework, if possible, as well.

It also would allow federal first responders to stay on their more generous retirement plans if, because of a positive coronavirus diagnosis, they are no longer able to meet the physical requirements of their positions. And it would establish that service members, federal employees and veterans will pay no out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment under TRICARE, Veterans Affairs health plans or the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.