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Policy Library

Essential Pay for Essential Workers

COVID-19 has made clear just how many workers are essential: first responders and healthcare professionals, grocery and warehouse workers, drivers and delivery people, and anyone else who has to show up at work to keep society functioning. According to research by New America, up to 37 million workers in essential industries earn less than $20 per hour. They must go to work even when it risks their lives; yet many don’t earn a wage that allows them to live. At a time of unprecedented government investment in the economy, including in the country’s wealthiest and largest businesses, the hard work and bravery of these essential workers deserves a raise to $20 per hour.

In The News

“Millions of [workers], a month ago when this pandemic hit, had no paid sick leave, uneven access to health insurance, and wages that did not even sustain a family...They're now going to jobs and risking their lives for $9, $10 dollars an hour.’ The coronavirus pandemic has ‘put a harsh spotlight on how poor these conditions have been for workers that have a low wage,’ Kinder added. ‘And suddenly they are keeping the rest of us alive.’”
“Ultimately, the success or failure of these retailers rests on the performance of these essential workers who keep the shelves stocked and arranged and interact with customers.”
“While we continue to support essential workers, recognize that it needs to be more than just words. ‘It's great that they're being saluted and recognized, but they also need to be paid,’ said [Leslie] Dach, [the chair of Protect Our Care].”
“[Meghan] McCain, who is pregnant, said she has been relying on Amazon delivery for packages ... since she is high risk and must be quarantined at home during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘I've been reeling about this for weeks that I think anyone who is doing any kind of essential work for us right now should not only get hazard pay but should have their pay doubled,’ she said.”


  • Essential workers
  • Unions
  • Human rights advocates


  • Businesses that oppose fair pay
  • Those who oppose wage laws on principle
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The State Line


Who does this help?
The families and essential workers who are putting their lives on the line. All businesses and communities who benefit from a functioning society. In the long-term, the entire economy, by creating a wage structure that does not drive people into poverty and the need for taxpayer assistance if they are doing full-time, essential work.
Is this high cost for the state?
It is not. Increasing wages reduces the costs of government programs to ensure people have food, housing and healthcare, as these workers’ employment wages become more able to cover them. In addition, while there is some increased cost to the state from increased wages to state employees, states also see increases to revenues from personal income taxes as well as sales and use taxes.
How will businesses be able to absorb this increase?
This policy applies to workers in industries that are essential to keeping society functioning. Many of these are the very small subset of employers that see increased business and revenue during a crisis. In addition, this wage level is simply a correction back to the norm: had the minimum wage kept pace with labor productivity growth since 1968, it would already exceed $20 per hour.
What categories of employees are covered by this increase?
All workers defined as essential under state or federal law, executive orders, or state or federal guidance, including workers supporting health care; public safety; food and agriculture; energy, water, communications and transportation systems; and critical manufacturing.

Model Policy

This act shall be known as the the Essential Wages for Essential Workers Act..

Whereas tens of millions of workers are required to go to work every day in spite of the threat to their personal health, and millions of essential workers are getting sick and dying at elevated rates due to the prevalence of COVID-19, meaning that workers are risking their lives daily for wages that are not enough to live on, the state shall ensure that all essential workers are paid a liveable wage.


(a) Every employer in STATE shall pay to each employee that is an essential worker wages at a rate of not less than $15 per hour for 40 hours of working time in any week and 1 1/2 times such employee's regular hourly wage for each hour of working time in excess of 40 hours in any week, except this overtime rate shall not include any individual employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity, effective immediately. The wage set by this section shall increase to $17.50 per hour on June 1, 2021, and to $20 per hour on June 1, 2022.
(b) If the current in-state or federal prevailing wage for government contractors in the same class or functional area is higher than the wage set under section (a) above, such worker shall be paid at that higher rate.
(c) “Essential worker” means:
  • (i) All workers defined as essential in state law or executive order.
  • (ii) All workers defined as essential in federal guidance, including but not limited to the “Advisory Memorandum On Identification Of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During Covid-19 Response” dated March 28, 2020 issued by the Office of the Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency