The national fight against the coronavirus is being described as a war. Front-line medical workers and their support employees are the soldiers, risking their lives daily against an enemy that preys primarily, though not exclusively, upon the elderly, ill and vulnerable.
A growing idea deserves serious consideration: Making those hospital employees — doctors, nurses, first responders, support staff — eligible for G.I. Bill-like federal benefits, including housing and education.
The original G.I. Bill was based on the simple premise that for some forms of crucial, often dangerous service to the nation, mere paychecks and pensions weren’t enough. The bill that President Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1944 provided all U.S. military veterans with myriad benefits like college tuition payments, job training, low-interest mortgages, business loans and extended unemployment compensation.
Though originally envisioned as a national thank-you to veterans, the program quickly proved to be a boon to the economy as well, helping fuel postwar prosperity and boosting a generation of returning soldiers into better lives than they might otherwise have had through educational opportunity and home ownership.
Similar legislation in 2008 provided education and other benefits to service members who had served after the 9/11 attacks, with 2017 legislation extending those benefits again. In these hotly partisan times, each of those measures garnered wide, enthusiastic support from both parties.
Front-line medical workers today aren’t dodging bullets, but the enemy they’re fighting can be just as deadly. Mid-April data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the more than 10,000 medical workers infected and scores of deaths very likely are only a fraction of the real numbers. That’s because the vast majority of U.S. infections, which could top 1 million in coming days, don’t specify employment.
Suffice it to say these front-line workers — not just doctors and nurses, but home health care workers, technicians and crucial support staff like hospital custodians — are putting themselves in harm’s way every day during this pandemic. Because of America’s inadequate planning on issues like testing and stockpiling of protective equipment, they must take extra risks to continue doing their jobs. Meanwhile, most of us watch from our couches.
Senate Democrats have proposed a “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” to provide premium pay increases of up to $25,000 for essential medical workers and staff. On an annual basis, that’s a boost of about $13 an hour. The bill would also provide cash incentives of up to $15,000 to recruit and train new front-line workers.
That bill is worthy of consideration in the current emergency, but what these workers are doing deserves more than a raise. The principles behind the G.I. Bill — a vow not just of money, but of benefits that can help achieve life-changing goals going forward — should be on the table.
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