Sen. Mitt Romney proposes ‘Patriot Pay’ to give essential workers a $12 per hour raise

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks with members of the media as he departs a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on an economic lifeline for Americans affected by the coronavirus outbreak on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney is pitching the idea of “Patriot Pay” for frontline workers, an idea that would offer an incentive to businesses to pay employees an additional $12 per hour through July.

The Utah Republican says the proposal would help offset a concern that some people would benefit more from staying on the unemployment rolls — given Congress has augmented that pay in the near-term — and compensate essential workers, like those in grocery stores, the trucking industry and medical device manufacturers, for continuing to go to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The idea of Patriot Pay is to provide additional compensation for those frontline workers who are keeping our grocery stores full of food, who are driving our buses, who are working at our health care centers, providing care for those that have COVID-19,” Romney told Utah reporters on a videoconference. “It’s in recognition of the fact that they’re working and taking additional health risks, even though we’re able to stay safe.”

Under Romney’s proposal, for example, a grocery store worker now making $10 an hour would receive an hourly bonus of $12 for a total of $22 per hour through July. The federal government would chip in $9 through a refundable tax credit for the employer, who would have to chip in $3 to make the deal work.

Congress has now passed nearly $3 trillion in relief to help combat the virus outbreak and prop up the sagging economy. But some members of Congress had raised red flags that a boost to unemployment pay — about $600 extra each week for up to four months — would mean some workers would benefit more from not working than returning to their jobs.

Romney, who had previously pushed for a direct payment to Americans that Congress eventually passed, made his proposal public Friday as the Senate is set to return to Washington for more discussion of another round of relief funds to help the health care industry, state and local governments and small businesses.

Romney's office said the “Patriot Pay” idea would:

— Hike pay up to $12 per hour to essential employees who make less than $50,000 annually and phased down for those making more than that until incomes hit $90,000.

— Give employers a 75% refundable tax credit for buying into the program.

— Allow Congress and the Labor Department to designate critical industries “including, but not limited to hospitals, food distributors and processors, and health manufacturers” that could participate in the program.

Romney said his proposal is a matter of fairness so workers deemed essential can be paid at least $22 per hour, which would be equivalent to what someone on the increased unemployment benefits could make for the next three months under the relief packaged Congress passed called the CARES Act.

“It’s designed to make sure that the people who are working to care for us are actually making as much money or more money than those that are on unemployment, because our unemployment system has been changed in such a way through the CARES Act that sometimes it looks like people get more money by being unemployed than by continue to work in their jobs,” Romney said.

Romney said Friday that the businesses opting into his proposal, if passed, would get the reimbursement from an already existing program, lessening the chance of a red-tape holdup as existed with the paycheck protection program for small businesses. While businesses would have to chip in more, Romney said consumers may have to pony up a little more to care for those caring for us.

“As long as they’re putting in one quarter of the amount, that pretty much assures that they’ll be paying attention to it — being careful” that only essential workers are covered, Romney said.

The Utah senator added that President Donald Trump has signaled interest in helping frontline workers and some staffers for fellow senators have been interested so far.

“And their reaction is, ‘Gosh, [that’s] interesting,’" Romney said, and “a better approach than is being floated by the Democrats. And so people are giving it consideration.”

Democrats in Congress are pushing for a plan they called the “Heroes Fund,” that would provide a $25,000 per person subsidy for workers in essential services, from health care to the food industry and delivery drivers.

As an example of the program’s benefit, Romney’s office said a grocery store in Provo could opt into “Patriot Pay” and contribute $3 toward increasing an essential worker’s pay while the federal government would give a tax refundable incentive to cover another $9 per hour. If that employee made $10 per hour, he or she would see a $5,760 bonus from May 1 through the end of July. The grocery store worker’s weekly paycheck would include an extra $480.