New bill would give essential workers $25K for tuition, student loans

As Congress eyes the next phase of coronavirus relief, some lawmakers want to help pay frontline workers’ student loans or higher education costs.

“Grocery clerks didn’t take that job at relatively modest wages thinking they were saving the world,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH) in an interview with Yahoo Finance.  

A new bill introduced this week would give essential workers $25,000 to pay off student debt, college tuition or the costs of a workforce development or continuing education program. Kuster and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick introduced the Opportunities for Heroes Act on Tuesday. The bill has several other Democratic cosponsors, but Fitzpatrick is the only Republican on board so far.

“Our essential workers put their lives at risk every day to make sure the rest of us are safe and healthy,” said Fitzpatrick in a statement. “They deserve all of the help we can provide them. By providing the option to help pay their student loans or continue their education, we can give them one less thing to worry about.”

Masked cashier rings up purchases behind a plexiglass shield at Stop and Shop grocery store during an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Little Neck, Queens, New York City, New York, April 3, 2020. (Photo by Morse Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

If the bill were to become law, the Secretary of Labor would establish a new commission to determine which workers are deemed essential and eligible for the $25,000. Some of the positions the bill specifically mentions include healthcare workers, first responders, pharmacy workers, grocery store workers and postal workers.

“It’s hard to envision literally every type of essential worker,” said Kuster. “We want it to be inclusive. We want to make sure that people are recognized even if the role they played is more obscure.”

Essential workers who worked at least 480 hours in a 120-day period during the COVID-19 crisis would be eligible. Workers who couldn’t reach 480 hours due to a case of COVID-19 would still be eligible.

The bill would allow workers to transfer the money to a family member. For example, if an essential worker did not have student loans or a desire to go to college, they could use the money to pay for their child’s education.

“It’s not just the workers that are at risk, but these frontline essential workers can bring the virus home—the contagion home — and put their families in jeopardy as well,” said Kuster. “We’re recognizing the contribution of the families.”

Kuster said she’s working to include the bill, or at least some form of higher education benefits, in the next stimulus package. The CARES Act granted some student loan relief, including a six-month suspension of some student loan payments — but experts say it’s not nearly enough. 

Right now there are a few proposals floating around DC. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced a bill this week to forgive student loan debt for healthcare workers. Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Ilhan Omar have a plan to cancel $30,000 in debt per borrower. While moving any debt forgiveness legislation through the Republican-controlled Senate could be an uphill battle, Kuster believes her Republican co-sponsor is a promising sign.

A pharmacist, left, assists a customer while working behind a plastic shield at a grocery store, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Quincy, Mass. Grocery stores across the U.S. are installing protective plastic shields at checkouts to help keep cashiers and shoppers from infecting each other with the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“I think there’ll be a debate about the parameters of the program,” said Kuster. “This would be part of the economic stimulus package… to make sure that people are going back to school or getting back to work, that they’re stimulating the economy.”

An aide for the House Committee on Labor and Education told Yahoo Finance it’s considering a range of proposals for additional relief for student borrowers.

Kuster told Yahoo Finance she supports student loan relief with or without a pandemic, but the outbreak has presented an opportunity to build support.

“People recognize that student loan debt is one of the things that’s holding this next generation back from their full economic potential in their full contribution to our society. As we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, we’re going to be looking for opportunities to grow our economy,” said Kuster. “There’s broad bipartisan support for increasing the skills, increasing the capacity and removing the barriers to success.”

Democratic lawmakers are also pushing for $13 an hour hazard pay for frontline workers. Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed an extra $12 an hour through the pandemic.

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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