May 12, 2020

Axios @Work

By Erica Pandey
Erica Pandey

Welcome back to Axios @Work. Today's edition focuses on how the coronavirus pandemic has upended the 63% of U.S. jobs that cannot be done from home.

  • Thanks to all of you who sent feedback and ideas for future stories! Keep the conversation going by replying to this email or writing to me at erica@axios.com.

Situational awareness: Twitter announced today that it will allow its employees to work from home forever. That's after both Google and Facebook extended remote work policies through the end of 2020. (Look for tech giants, which were among the first companies to send employees home in March, to lead the way in turning remote work into the new norm after the pandemic.)

I've got 1,463 words for you this evening — a 5.5-minute read. First up...

1 big thing: "Disposable workers" doing essential jobs

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."
2. Breaking down hazard pay

Protesting for higher pay outside of a Boston Whole Foods. Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Although some companies have temporarily raised wages as a form of hazard pay for essential workers, the majority have not.

By the numbers: Those offering hazard pay include 46% of grocers and other essential retailers and 29% of health-related employers, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: The argument for hazard pay is simple: Compensation should account for risks taken at work. "In the investment world, the more risk you take, the more money you make," says UFCW's Perrone. "In this case, we have workers taking more risks and being more productive."

What's happening: Some lawmakers have proposed including hazard pay for essential workers as part of the next coronavirus relief package.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney's "Patriot Pay" plan would give up to $12 an hour in bonuses to those making under $50,000 a year.
  • House Democrats' proposal, released today, includes a $200 billion "Heroes Fund" to provide hazard pay to essential workers.

The bottom line: Without federal action, pay for low-wage essential workers will dwindle back to pre-pandemic levels, as more and more firms follow Kroger's example.

3. The jobs we won't get back

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Restaurant and retail workers who can't do their jobs remotely were the first to lose their incomes to the pandemic — and, for many of them, those temporary hardships will turn into lasting ones.

By the numbers: Economists at the University of Chicago project that 42% of the layoffs from the pandemic will be permanent.

  • A huge number of retailers and restaurants — especially boutiques and smaller chains — have already closed for good, unable to weather the crisis. And more will follow before the pandemic is over.
  • Even bigger chains like Macy's and Gap might not bring back all of the hundreds of thousands of workers they let go in March, experts tell Axios.
  • And the process of recalling furloughed workers will be gradual. As states start to reopen, stores and eateries will likely operate at lower capacities and only hire back a portion of staff.

The bottom line: The silver lining in last week's jobs report — the worst in U.S. history, with 20.5 million jobs shed in April — was that around 18 million of those lost jobs were just temporary layoffs. But the outlook could turn worse in the coming weeks and months.

4. The lone hiring surge

Out for delivery in Manhattan. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

As every sector sheds jobs, grocery chains and delivery companies are bucking the trend and hiring by the hundreds of thousands.

The big picture: While much of America stays home, a big portion of the jobs lost in the retail and restaurant sectors are being reallocated to the delivery economy.

  • An illuminating stat: Before the pandemic, there were very few searches for grocery positions on the jobs site ZipRecruiter. Since the start of the crisis, searches have spiked 22%, says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.
  • Amazon has hired 175,000 new workers in recent weeks.
  • Instacart tells Axios that its network of personal shoppers — defined as individuals who have fulfilled an order in the last 30 days — has jumped from 200,000 when the crisis began to 500,000 today.
  • Walmart has hired nearly 200,000 people.

Postings for grocery and delivery workers haven't dwindled, Pollak says.

  • In fact, postings that include the terms "desperate need" or "urgent need" for candidates rose 15-fold between February and March, and then doubled again in April.

Yes, but: The quality of these jobs hasn't changed despite the demand. The pay being offered for jobs like delivery driver and grocery picker hasn't risen above pre-pandemic levels. And around 10% of the ZipRecruiter postings are explicitly for temporary gigs, compared to less than 2% before the crisis, Pollak says.

What to watch: It's likely that some of this temporary swelling in the grocery and delivery sectors will outlast the coronavirus as consumers' habits change.

  • Those who have turned into grocery delivery evangelists won't suddenly switch back to shopping in-person all the time.

The bottom line: "In the end, the companies that are supporting stay-at-home economies will probably need a workforce that is bigger than it was before the pandemic, but smaller than it gets to at the height of the pandemic," Jed Kolko, Indeed's chief economist, tells Axios.

5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

How the coronavirus pandemic will transform teaching (Axios)

  • The pandemic-forced school closures have irreversibly changed long-held views of schools and the roles of students, teachers and parents in learning.

Battling coronavirus in an Iowa meat plant (New York Times)

  • Plants across the country are feeding America's seemingly insatiable appetite for meat by keeping facilities open as infections spread.

The newly minted grads on the front lines (New Yorker)

  • All over the country, fourth-year medical students have graduated early, recited the Hippocratic oath over video calls and gone to work at understaffed, under-resourced hospitals buckling under the pandemic.

The pandemic's economic impacts are disproportionately hitting women and people of color (Vox)

  • Compare April's job numbers: The unemployment rate was 13% for men and 15.5% for women. It was 16.7% for black workers, 18.9% for Hispanics, 14.5% for Asians, and 14.2% for whites.
6. 1 🎓 thing: High schools get creative

My family's graduate. Photo: Muna Joshi (aka Mom).

High schools around the country are doing their best to make graduation-amid-a-pandemic special for America's 3.7 million seniors.

Maia Pandey, my sister (pictured above) is a senior at Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And her high school sent every senior signs to put on their lawns.

  • BB&N, which usually doesn't do caps and gowns, also mailed students full graduation garb to wear for the Zoom festivities in early June.
  • Then they'll drive by the school in alphabetical order to pick up diplomas.
  • The school also has a traditional graduation scheduled for August (if social distancing guidelines permit). If that doesn't work, they'll do it when the kids come back for Thanksgiving break.

Some other creative ideas...

  • One high school in Arkansas is holding mini-commencement ceremonies for each of its 100 seniors — one at a time, the Wall Street Journal reports. They'll each come to school with five family members and walk across a stage to get their diplomas.
  • Another school in Pennsylvania is planning a drive-in graduation, with a movie screening afterward.
Erica Pandey

Thanks for reading!

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