Health care workers, first responders, pharmacy workers, grocery store workers, postal workers and many others are putting their own health at risk as they work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are the unsung heroes of these unprecedented times, and legislators have been working to provide relief, from proposing hazard pay to forgiving student loans for health care workers.
A new bill introduced this week called the Opportunities for Heroes Act seeks to provide up to $25,000 in student loan relief and tuition assistance to frontline workers. The bill, proposed by Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), outlines some criteria for who would qualify and what would be provided, should the bill become law.
Here’s what you need to know.
The legislation would provide $25,000 in either student loan debt relief or education benefits to essential workers. If the essential worker does not wish to use their education credit, they can transfer it to a family member, such as their child.
“Essential workers risk their health and well-being every day to keep our society functioning during this unprecedented pandemic,” Rep. Kuster said in a statement. “We owe these heroes a debt of gratitude. This legislation will honor their service by allowing essential workers to pay off student debt and have the opportunity—should they want it—to further their education or learn new skills once the crisis has subsided.”
The idea is that by eliminating student loan debt for these workers, the bill could provide them with some financial freedom to buy homes, make investments or save for retirement.
Who Would Qualify?
In the bill, “essential worker” means an individual who was employed in essential employment and who worked at least 480 hours in a 120-day period during the COVID-19 crisis. Essential workers who couldn’t work at least 480 hours due to a case of COVID-19 or due to caring for a family member with COVID-19 are also eligible.
The bill outlines people who work in grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores to health care workers, health manufacturing workers, those employed in cafeterias that serve food to essential workers, those who provide childcare for families of essential workers, security and sanitation workers in locations where essential workers are employed, transportation workers and more. A list of eligible workers for the bill can be found here.
Where the Bill Stands
Kuster is working on the possibility of including the bill or some type of higher education benefits for frontline workers in the next stimulus package.
Organizations such as the American Health Care Association, International Association of Fire Fighters, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Transportation Workers Union and others have shown their support for the proposed legislations.
In addition to the Opportunities for Heroes Act, there are a number of other proposals to thank frontline workers fighting coronavirus and provide them with financial assistance. This includes New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s proposal to eliminate student debt for health care workers treating patients with coronavirus—without counting the forgiven debt as income. Meanwhile, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed that frontline workers should earn 50% more pay during the pandemic, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a series of initiatives for frontline workers, including tuition-free postsecondary education for essential workers.