America has found itself in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis the likes of which many have not experienced in their lifetimes. There are those who run from crisis, those who run toward it, and those who find themselves right in the middle without any say in the matter. Today, many of those in the middle are the men and women stocking, sanitizing, and serving our communities in grocery and convenience stores throughout the country.

These employees are among the unsung heroes in the fight against COVID-19, who are often overlooked while we focus on the sea of brave doctors, nurses, and first responders who are also working overtime to do their part to defeat this virus.

COVID-19 has led to consumers stocking up on groceries due to stay-at-home orders, as well as business and school closures. During these uncertain times, demands upon the workforce have increased, combined with heightened risks for anyone in public — particularly employees coming into contact with so many individuals on any given day. This has presented new challenges for stores and employees alike who have had to remain nimble to adjust to a slew of new federal and local guidelines on how to best operate during the pandemic.

To recognize these efforts, we have introduced the Giving Retailers and Our Convenience Employees Relief Act, or GROCER Act. The bill would establish a four-month federal tax holiday for grocery and convenience store workers who make less than $75,000 annually. The bill also provides the Treasury Department the discretion to extend the holiday an additional three months if necessary.

The tax holiday would mean wages earned during the pandemic, specifically from Feb. 15 to June 15, would not be subject to federal income tax. Simply put, the GROCER Act is a way to put more of the hard-earned money back into the pockets of the hardworking individuals who have been keeping grocery and convenience stores operational while America has done their part staying home, social distancing, and flattening the curve.

Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson (R.), left, and Rep. Dwight Evans (D.).
Courtesy of Thompson/Evans
Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson (R.), left, and Rep. Dwight Evans (D.).

The GROCER Act is modeled on hazard pay benefits received by brave men and women serving in the armed forces while deployed overseas. When it comes to the COVID-19 battle, grocery and convenience store workers have found themselves on the front lines. These essential employees leave their families each day, risking exposure to the virus in order to ensure our families and communities have access to the food and resources we need. Without these workers, millions of Americans would struggle to access basic necessities.

Food connects each and every one of us. It’s something we all depend on, regardless of age, race, gender, or political affiliation. Bustling metropolises, towns with a single stoplight, and every community in between each require the same sustenance. As members of Congress concerned about nutrition, we come from very different areas of the same state — rural central Pennsylvania and the heart of Philadelphia — yet with similarly vulnerable populations and challenges when it comes to ensuring our constituents have access to a safe and affordable food supply.

The GROCER Act isn’t just a way to financially support these essential workers through the pandemic. It’s also a way to boost morale — a way to recognize life-essential employees for their resilience during these challenging times. As Congress continues to debate the best way to continue with a national response, we should pass the GROCER Act to show our collective gratitude for these unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Glenn “GT” Thompson (R.) represents Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District and Dwight Evans (D.) represents Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District.

Broke in Philly is a project from Resolve Philadelphia.
Resolve Philadelphia
Broke in Philly is a project from Resolve Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.