Workers at CityMD, New York City’s largest urgent care chain, have played a key role in combating the Coronavirus outbreak, interviewing and testing patients with symptoms. But last week, as the pandemic continued to paralyze the city, employees got an email from the company saying they would allow their temporary “hazard” pay rate to expire.
“I know everyone would like the temporary raise to continue,” wrote company president Rob Connor in an April 30th email. “Your operations and clinical leaders absolutely pushed to continue [the] raise, but the business conditions cannot support doing so.”
The decision did not go over well with some company employees. One CityMD medical scribe (a paraprofessional who documents physician-patient encounters as they happen) said employees were still in close contact with customers showing symptoms of the virus.
“I took the job because I love healthcare and I wanted to get my foot in the door,” said the scribe, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “And then to be treated like this has been really eye opening.”
Asked about the discontinuation of hazard pay, a company spokesman said the number of customers had actually dropped off in March and April and therefore the hazard was lower as well.
But a day later, the company reversed its decision, informing employees in an email that they were going to bring back the three-dollar-an-hour hazard pay due to a new spike in visits after the company started offering antibody testing last week.
The medical scribe did not buy that explanation.
“I think this happened because it was about to be public that they cut our hazard pay when the hazard wasn’t over,” she said.
Listen to reporter George Joseph's radio story for WNYC:
Tensions over hazard pay are simmering across the country. Businesses are asking workers to take health risks to keep them afloat. But at the same time, many are seeing falling revenues. While some prominent corporations, like Target and Amazon, have promised to continue paying hazard wages, some regional chains have given out hazard pay only temporarily or in one-time lump sums.
Labor union officials note that bigger firms often have greater flexibility when it comes to hazard pay.
“Large businesses, whether in normal times or in crises like this pandemic, are generally much better positioned to weather storms,” said Michal Rozworski, a teachers’ union researcher and co-author of The People’s Republic of Walmart, a book on Walmart’s use of central planning. “They have greater reserves. They have — importantly — much better access to credit.”
Rozworski also notes that larger workforces, especially unionized ones, are able to demand more. In New York, for example, SEIU 1199, the powerful health-care union, says it has secured hazard pay agreements for thousands of workers in the NYU and New York Presbyterian hospital systems.
But one recent survey from WorldatWork suggests that most employers have not been paying hazard pay at all. So some city and state lawmakers want the government to ensure that frontline workers are fairly compensated for their risks.
The New York City Council has floated a proposal that would make essential businesses with more than a hundred employees pay hourly workers more depending on the length of their shifts until the state of emergency ends.
In Albany, New York State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas have asked Governor Cuomo to direct federal stimulus funds to essential workers through their employers.
“We are increasingly going to see a lot of businesses experience hardship, so New York state government really should start considering how to generate revenue so we can help these community anchors thrive,” said Senator Ramos in a phone call.
But so far most government hazard pay proposals have not moved forward. In the meantime, Ramos says companies like CityMD that are not on the verge of bankruptcy need to keep stepping up as long as the crisis persists.
“Paying your workers hazard pay during a pandemic is not a donation. It is duly recognized compensation for their work during an unprecedented disaster,” she said.