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."

Go deeper

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Study finds COVID-19 antibodies prevalent in NYC health care workers

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

More than 13% of health care workers in the greater New York City area tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, according to a newly published study.

Why it matters: The rate at which health care professionals tested positive for antibodies is consistent with the rate of COVID-19 antibodies found among randomly tested adults in the state of New York. The data released Thursday "is important so [health care workers] can protect themselves, their patients, their colleagues, and their families," per JAMA researchers.

America's rush for young poll workers

Note: Colorado is a mail-in ballot state, but they also offer in-person polls.; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios (Clickable link)

Local elections officials are sprinting to recruit younger poll workers ahead of November after elderly staff stayed home en masse to avoid coronavirus during primary elections.

Why it matters: A Pew Research analysis reports that 58% of U.S. poll workers in the 2018 midterms were 61 or older. Poll worker shortages can cause hours-long voting lines and shutter precincts.

Exclusive: How the high-tech economy is expanding

Data: Information Technology Industry Council; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The technology sector increasingly underpins the U.S. economy, with signs of its growth becoming more woven into local economies far outside iconic innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and New York.

Why it matters: A new district-by-district report out today from the Information Technology Industry Council makes the case that an economy infused with high-tech workers, startups and exports is a more resilient one, with higher wages and productivity.

What's new: Drilling into the data by congressional district yields some surprising findings:

  • The average congressional district now has about 400 high-tech startups employing around 3,400 workers.
  • Texas and Florida are home to four times the number of high-tech startups as the average U.S. state.
  • In Alabama, startups make up 16% of high-tech employment — the highest share in the country.
  • In Vermont, high-tech manufacturing exports make up 5.5% of the state economy — the largest share in the country.

"There is demand for skilled STEM workers, there is demand for public R&D funding, and even for high-tech startups in states across the country — not just in states we hear so much about," said ITI President and CEO Jason Oxman. "Companies are looking for opportunities to find good people in new geographies."

Yes, but: Despite shoots of green sprouting up across the country, many districts are still struggling to find a solid foothold. And there's concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will stunt some areas' tech-related growth even more.

  • For example, the Heartland region lags far behind coastal markets when it comes to attracting entrepreneurs and startups, according to a May report from Heartland Forward.
  • This is where skilled workers are key: "Knowledge-intensive young firms have a higher probability of achieving middle-market status where they can generate rapid job gains for their communities," per Heartland Forward.

The ITI data shows a strong correlation at the district level between employment in computer and math occupations and employment in science and engineering occupations — indicating that a density of high-skilled labor makes a region more attractive for skilled workers in other sectors.

  • This can impact wages.
  • In the median congressional district, average annual wages for high-tech workers in the median state were nearly $79,000. That's more than double the median U.S. personal income, which is around $31,000 annually.

There's a clear correlation at the congressional district level between the prevalence of high-tech and STEM workers and federal R&D funding, ITI's data analysis found.

The catch: The decades-long slide in public R&D funding has accelerated since 2009, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which analyzed the numbers last year.

  • As of last summer, the federal government invests about $125 billion per year in R&D on everything from agriculture to manufacturing to energy. But that investment as a share of overall U.S. GDP has continued to decline. Meanwhile, countries including China have increased this spending.

By the numbers: In the last two fiscal years, 250 out of 435 congressional districts got at least $50 million in federal R&D funding.

  • 14 states did not get any public R&D funding.

The bottom line: The tech economy isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition, and regions should build on their strengths.

  • Smaller markets have managed to capture pieces of the innovation infrastructure needed to drive high-tech ecosystems, but many have a long way to go.
  • "It is really important for states and congressional districts to focus on what they're good at and not try to be the next San Francisco," Oxman said.