Health Care Workers Renew Call For Hazard Pay As COVID-19 Cases Rise

Bill Proposed By Democrats Would Provide Increased Pay Along With Paid Medical Leave

Nurse and medical workers are celebrated by New Yorkers
Nurses and medical workers react as police officers and pedestrians cheer them outside Lenox Hill Hospital Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in New York. Frank Franklin II/AP Photo

As cases of COVID-19 are spiking in Wisconsin and across much of the nation, health care workers around the state are renewing demands for paid sick leave and hazard pay.

“We should be able to focus on providing the best care for our patients without the worries of what could happen to us, our jobs or our families if we do get sick,” said Ryann Streicher, a labor and delivery nurse at a Madison hospital.

New cases of coronavirus, which leveled off for much of June, began climbing recently. Sunday, the state recorded its third-largest number of daily cases since May 29 when there were 733 new cases.

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“This virus isn’t going away,” said Streicher. She and other health care workers support a new bill introduced by Democrats Rep. Robyn Vining, D-Wauwatosa; Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point; and Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit called the Healthcare Heroes Act.

The bill would require hospitals to pay certain health care workers more during a public health emergency. It also would require health care facilities to provide at least 15 days of paid medical leave for workers who contract COVID-19.

Victorial Guttierez is a critical care nurse who has worked at a Madison hospital for 17 years and is a member of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.

“The accolades of being a hero quickly fade for us when we confront the reality of being on the front lines of every shift,” said Guttierez, who’s a single mom “constantly worried” about exposure to COVID-19. She spoke with lawmakers and other health care workers during an online press conference Monday.

The CARES Act — the federal coronavirus relief bill passed earlier this year — along with the Families First Act require insurers to cover COVID-19 testing. However, those federal laws do not cover treatment. Only four states waive cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Most people who get COVID-19 recuperate on their own, but hospitalization can be costly.

The state Healthcare Heroes Act calls for the Department of Health Services to pay for testing and treatment of infected health care workers diagnosed with COVID-19 or any other communicable disease if they don’t have insurance.

The proposed legislation also contains a long sought-after goal of Democrats: state Medicaid expansion using federal dollars provided under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The fate of the ACA is currently in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Trump Administration contends the ACA is unconstitutional because the penalty for not having health insurance was repealed by Congress.

Republicans in Wisconsin have repeatedly rebuffed efforts to expand Medicaid under the federal law, but some Democrats think the economic crisis caused by the pandemic could sway some GOP members.

“The last few times they’ve said ‘no,’ the state’s finances have been okay. We are not okay now and we will not be okay in the next budget,” said Erpenbach. “We are going to need money, not only for K-12 education, but everything else. And we’re going to need money for health care.”

The Legislature is not currently is session. If the bill were to be taken up, Republican leaders or the governor would have to call lawmakers back to the Capitol.

In mid-April, the Legislature passed and Gov. Tony Evers signed a COVID-19 bill that lifted the waiting period for unemployment benefits, required health insurers to cover COVID-19 tests without a patient copayment or coinsurance, and lifted annual testing requirements and teacher assessments for public, private and charter schools across the state.