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Published 04/15/2020 | Reading Time 5 min 29 sec

OPINION | By Deon Osborne, Senior Writer 

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has locked down families and the economy on an unprecedented level, essential workers are propping up both with little protection of their own.

While Oklahoma’s furloughed workers receive a much-needed extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits (if they’re lucky enough to access the state website successfully), most essential workers are risking deadly health complications and experiencing mental anguish with no hazard pay.

That doesn’t mean people should buy into divisive arguments that pit furloughed workers against essential workers. Instead, Oklahomans across the state should come together and demand essential workers are equitably rewarded for their contributions and sacrifice.

Across the state, healthcare workers in clinics, hospitals and veteran outpatient centers are working in close proximity to at-risk populations with no hazard pay. 

Grocery and food delivery workers, nonprofit and counseling workers, along with workers at rental properties, dispensaries, prison detention centers, police departments and news organizations are working with no hazard pay.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines hazard pay as “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship.” It’s difficult to imagine a more physically hazardous work environment than one in which employees–at any time and through no fault of their own–can succumb to a debilitating, deadly disease with no current cure.

Like myself, most workers in the nonprofit sector are used to employee concerns about low wages being met with the condescending phrase “you’re not in it for the money.”

As a Tulsa youth specialist at Oklahoma’s largest emergency shelter for homeless youth, I certainly didn’t apply for the starting pay. I applied because I have a desire to help marginalized families, and every single day I learn something new about this rewarding work.

However, every worker deserves a living wage. And as a young Black man with chronic lung disease, interacting with children who sometimes run away and come back or who don’t cover their sneezes and coughs presents me with the morbid fact that I could receive a dead wage instead of a living one.

What I considered minor safety concerns before are now heightened tremendously. An asymptomatic kid returning from their runaway adventure through the woods or streets of downtown Tulsa could release a stray cough that lands me in the hospital strapped to a ventilator.

Employees, you shouldn’t wait until the Federal Government reaches a deal for more aid. And employers, you shouldn’t wait until your employees bring it to your attention. These discussions should take place now. 

For large companies in Oklahoma like Wal-Mart that are currently booming as an essential target for customers, the demand is clear: you owe your workers hazard pay immediately, something Wal-Mart began in mid-March. For medium and small businesses across Oklahoma, employers should begin applying for financial resources from the government and actively push for more aid to be passed through Congress.

For those unsure what hazard pay should look like, proposals abound:

Some large companies like Lowe’s and Amazon are already rewarding their essential workers with two to three extra dollars an hour and monthly bonuses.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate are proposing to send a whopping $25,000 to every essential worker in the country, which amounts to an extra $13 per hour covering the beginning of the lockdown to the end of the year.

Former Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna have proposed an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights.” It would include 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family leave for essential workers, though it offers exemptions for businesses employing fewer than 50 people.

Senator Warren’s state of Massachusetts has already reached a deal with its healthcare workers, agreeing to at least $10 extra per hour through the end of May.

If now isn’t the time to stand up for ourselves as workers, the main characters building up the economy, when is the time? If now isn’t the time to demand equitable pay for equitable labor, how many lives will we lose before we decide it is the time?

As essential workers, we appreciate your gratitude-filled thoughts and prayers for our service. But we don’t need hollow hero worship. We need hazard pay.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...