By Doug McConnell and Dominic Wilkinson.
While the general public enjoy the relative safety of social distancing, key workers are at a higher risk of both contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to their families. This is especially the case for ‘frontline’ workers who are frequently exposed to the virus and may not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Tragically, many key workers have died of COVID-19 around the world already, including over 100 in the UK.
Although it is relatively rare for key workers to die from COVID-19, the risk of death is obviously much greater than one would usually expect in these roles and key workers clearly have good reason to be anxious. For frontline workers, this distress is compounded by working in unusually harrowing conditions where so many are dying alone. Furthermore, frontline workers have to take on the burden of ensuring they do not transmit infections to their families, by moving in with patients, living in hotels, or maintaining rigorous distancing in their own homes.
These atypical costs, risks, and burdens suggest that key workers are owed compensation in addition to their usual pay and a few rounds of nationally coordinated applause. There are currently at least three forms of compensation under consideration in the UK.
1. The Liberal Democrats are calling for NHS workers to receive per diem hazard pay equivalent to the Armed Forces’ ‘Operational Allowance’ paid while on deployment (~£30/day).
2. A cross-party group of MPs is calling for a scheme to compensate the families of key workers for funeral costs and lost earnings if those workers die of COVID-19. This is also modelled on the system used for the Armed Forces.
3. Another cross-party group of MPs is calling for foreign nationals in the NHS to be offered indefinite ‘leave to remain’, i.e. the option of becoming permanent residents without the usual 5 year waiting period and application costs. Interestingly this measure also has a military precedent when Gurkhas were offered indefinite leave to remain.
One method for working out whether these forms of compensation are justified is to assume that they are justified in the case of the Armed Forces and then assess the strength of the analogy with key workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, is the situation faced by key workers analogous to the Armed Forces in the relevant ways?
One reason in favor of making compensation available to the Armed Forces is that they are doing a job that benefits the public. On this count the analogy is strong since key workers are also providing large public benefits; without their efforts, thousands more would die of COVID-19. These benefits are at least as large as those the Armed Forces typically provide. Another reason in favor of making compensation available to the Armed Forces is that certain, significant costs, risks, and burdens are unavoidable aspects of doing their beneficial work. Again, the analogy is strong. The greater risk to key workers from COVID-19 is an unavoidable consequence of providing treatment, selling groceries, et cetera.
There are two disanalogies between key workers and members of the Armed Services, however, that make the case for compensating key workers stronger than the (already strong) case for compensating the Armed Forces.
First, the risks and burdens of working in the Armed Services are more obviously inherent to that work than the risks of pandemic are to the work of key workers. Members of the Armed Forces cannot claim they were unaware of the possibility of being deployed to dangerous areas. In contrast, supermarket workers and hospital porters, for example, did not plausibly consent to working in the conditions created by COVID-19 when accepting their jobs. Even physicians (who arguably have a duty to treat during a pandemic) are working in circumstances much more unusual to them than members of the Armed Forces are when deployed overseas. So most key workers and even physicians have a case for claiming that their contracts fail to fairly remunerate them for working in these conditions.
Second, the compensation for members of the Armed Forces is based on the assumption that they are adequately trained and equipped. If they were not, then a further claim of compensation would be justified. Therefore, key workers who have had inadequate PPE have a stronger claim to hazard pay and compensation for any harm suffered as a result.
On the basis of this analogy with the Armed Forces, key workers have a strong claim to compensation and hazard pay for working during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, exactly how much compensation is owed is a different matter. We address that issue and expand on the above arguments in a forthcoming article.
Paper title: Compensation and hazard pay for key workers during a pandemic: An argument from analogy
Author(s): Doug McConnell and Dominic Wilkinson
Affiliations: The Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford
Competing interests: None