One of the most prominent veterans serving in Congress is pushing her colleagues to approve hazard pay for troops working on the front lines of the coronavirus response, arguing the risk warrants that designation.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and a retired lieutenant colonel from the Iowa National Guard who served in the Middle East during the Iraq War, is introducing legislation this week to provide tax-free hazardous duty pay for all guardsmen currently deployed on pandemic-related missions. That would include back pay for deployments dating back to the start of March.
“Whether it’s delivering personal protective equipment, food, or medical supplies, our National Guardsmen and women have answered the call to help during COVID-19,” Ernst said in a statement.
“I could not be more proud of their tireless and selfless efforts. That’s why I believe Congress should take this small step to recognize the hazardous work they’re doing during this pandemic and provide them the pay they deserve.”
Her proposal would also extend to active duty service members and other military medical corps professionals on coronavirus operations.
Currently, more than 46,500 National Guard troops and about 7,000 active-duty troops have been activated for state and federal response to the coronavirus outbreak. More than 67,000 Americans have died from complications related to the illness.
Hazardous duty pay could total at least $150 a month, depending how lawmakers define the deployments under existing Defense Department rules. No estimate was given for what the move could cost.
But the idea follows several pitches by lawmakers in recent weeks to award more money to public servants and essential private-sector employees for their continued work amid the coronavirus threat.
Last week, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, proposed bonuses of up to $12 an hour for three months for employees at hospitals, grocery stores and health manufacturing firms.
Military advocates hailed Ernst’s proposal as a way to recognize service members for their contributions.
"Our National Guard men and women have been called upon, once again, by the nation's leadership to help combat the novel coronavirus pandemic in America. The risks are great; so are the hazards,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Frank Yoakum, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States.
Pentagon officials said Monday that the armed forces are on pace to pass 5,000 coronavirus cases among troops this week.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.