May 12, 2020 - Economy

"Disposable workers" doing essential jobs

Penny that shows Lincoln with a face mask

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Millions of Americans are risking their lives to feed us and bring meals, toiletries and new clothes to our doorsteps — but their pay, benefits and working conditions do not reflect the dangers they face at work.

Why it matters: People who stock grocery shelves and deliver packages never expected to be on the front lines of a national crisis, and now they're playing a vital, but undervalued, role. "These are viewed as essential jobs done by disposable workers," says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University.

What's happening: Some companies, including Amazon and Walmart, increased hourly pay or distributed cash bonuses to low-wage workers when the pandemic began — in recognition of the hazards involved — but many of those pay bumps are expiring as employers worry about how much longer the pandemic will last.

  • Kroger is ending its $2 an hour wage hike for grocery workers in mid-May.
  • Liquor store chain Total Wine & More's $2 an hour bump only lasted from mid-March to mid-April, per the Wall Street Journal.
  • Lawmakers have proposed bills that would make hazard or "hero" pay for low-wage essential workers more permanent, but it's unclear when or if those policies would take effect.

Many low-wage essential workers have been laboring in unsafe environments. Companies waited weeks to install plexiglass shields and sanitization stations in stores, and states were late to mandate masks in essential workplaces beyond hospitals. As a result, various grocery stores, warehouses and food-processing plants have become hotspots of infection.

  • 81 workers at a single Walmart in Worcester, Massachusetts, tested positive for the virus.
  • There have been similar outbreaks at Whole Foods stores and Amazon warehouses.
  • Around 5,000 workers at meatpacking plants across 19 states have contracted the virus, and at least 20 have died.
  • The United Food and Commercial Workers Union tells Axios that 59 of its members have died (and the union doesn't even represent several big players, such as Walmart, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods).

Between the lines: On safety, there's a disconnect between what CEOs are saying and what workers are reporting from the ground level, Vox's Anna North writes.

  • "There's a tremendous amount of conversations that happen at the top that don’t make it all the way down to the bottom," says Marc Perrone, president of the UFCW.
  • "Some supervisor in some store will say, 'I don’t believe in that. We're not doing that,' and they don’t get caught."

Benefits for grocery and delivery workers are among the worst in the nation. More than half such workers lacked paid sick days before the pandemic struck — giving them the strong incentive to come to work even if ill, reports CNN Business.

  • Several companies, like Trader Joe's and Amazon, adopted new sick leave policies in response to the crisis.

The bottom line: The coronavirus crisis is exposing the ugly ways in which low-wage workers are treated — by employers and customers alike. "But for the first time, the workplace conditions of low-wage workers are directly relevant to the whole country," says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • Inadequate paid sick leave or a lack of PPE at your local grocer puts workers and customers at risk. "You’d hope it would result in some sort of sea change in how we view and how we treat grocery workers and delivery workers," Logan says.
  • Says Block: "The fates of workers and consumers are tied together in a way that the American public has never known before."
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