Essential Workers Want Real Hazard Pay. Most Of Them Are Getting Peanuts.

Facing unusually dangerous conditions, workers on the front lines have received small wage increases, if any. Many feel more underpaid than ever.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Working at Whole Foods during a pandemic comes with a few perks.

“We’re getting snacks and drinks and praise and all that,” said Julie, who works for the Amazon-owned grocer at a location in Virginia.

But the actual compensation for risking her life amid an unprecedented public health crisis? Just a $2-per-hour bump, or an additional $80 per week before taxes for a full-time worker.

“It doesn’t really mean anything,” she said.

More than a month into the pandemic, essential workers around the country want the sort of hazard pay their employers ― and Congress ― have been reluctant to offer.

Some companies have temporarily increased wages or offered employees bonuses. But the extra cash is typically quite modest, as it is at Whole Foods. Many workers in health care, food services, public works and other fields have seen no pay increase at all, even though they are expected to continue clocking in as normal. And because fewer people are out and about, and many non-emergency health procedures have been delayed, some essential workers have lost enough hours to see their take-home pay go down.

Wage growth has been slow for years despite a tight labor market and record-low unemployment. Now, as a result of the unusually dangerous working conditions brought on by the coronavirus, many workers are feeling more underpaid than ever, especially as colleagues have fallen ill with COVID-19.

Several workers told HuffPost that the additional money they are getting is so marginal that it barely figures into their calculus on whether to continue working or not until the pandemic passes.

“How can you expect people to show up and keep it together when you’re basically just giving them chicken feed?” said a worker at an Amazon warehouse, who, like others in this story, asked that they not be identified for fear of retaliation. “I’ve seen otherwise cheerful people absolutely miserable.”

“If the risks are higher, then you need to pay them. That’s the rule of the capitalist system.”

- Marc Perrone, president, United Food and Commercial Workers

The temporary raise at Amazon is $2 per hour. Workers can earn double their normal rate, but only by working more than 40 hours a week, which is also the case at Whole Foods.

“We are dealing with added stressors every day and working short-handed,” said a Walmart employee in Nevada, who received a one-time $300 bonus for her work during the pandemic. “I’ve got a headache that won’t go away from it all.”

Federal wage law makes no requirements for hazard pay when a job becomes far more dangerous than normal. A Bloomberg Law analysis of union contracts around the country found only one negotiated last year that includes the term. But because of the pandemic, nearly any job not done by telework is now far more hazardous than usual.

With employers loath or unable to increase pay to something like time-and-a-half ― and many of them wondering if they will survive the pandemic at all ― Democrats in Congress have proposed federally funded hazard pay for front-line workers like nurses, grocery clerks, bus drivers and others, dubbed a “heroes fund.” But the plan has gained little traction even after lawmakers passed multiple stimulus bills totaling more than $2 trillion.

Several essential workers pointed out in interviews that they might be earning more on unemployment right now ― and in many cases, they’re right. When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last month, it included an extra federal unemployment benefit of $600 per week to be tacked onto state payments. As a result, some workers’ benefits are greater than their normal wages, at least until the $600 provision expires in July.

The additional unemployment benefits were meant to pump more money into the economy during this historic downturn, and to encourage workers to stay home, since social distancing is key to ending the pandemic. But workers out there stocking shelves, cleaning hospitals and making deliveries say that earning what is basically their normal pay as the country tells them they’re “essential” feels like a gut punch.

A grocery store worker at a protest in Boston on April 7.
A grocery store worker at a protest in Boston on April 7.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

A worker at an emergency room on Long Island said the idea of hazard pay didn’t resonate until she saw laid-off workers getting the additional federal money. She doesn’t begrudge the unemployed that extra support, she said, but she wonders why Congress and the White House haven’t done the same for her colleagues “standing out in the rain, nasal-swabbing” patients.

“It’s nothing to do with my employer. It’s just the government. What’s the holdup?” said the worker, who herself contracted COVID-19. “Why do you give someone not working an extra $600, when we’re in paper scrubs and an N95 every day?”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the solution is not to reduce unemployment benefits, as some Republicans have recommended, but to raise pay for those on the front lines. Brown and other Democrats have been pitching a hazard pay plan in which the federal government would pay essential workers an additional $13 per hour, up to $25,000 more per year for most workers.

“If you’re making $12 or $13 an hour working in a drugstore and you’re considered essential, as you are, think of the anxiety you have,” Brown told HuffPost. “You go home at the end of the day and potentially expose your family to this virus. If you’re only going to make $12 or $13 an hour, that’s just insulting. We should have this pandemic pay.”

President Donald Trump said in late March that he was ”looking athazard pay for health care workers, but the White House has been quiet on the issue since then. When Trump signed an executive order this week pressuring meatpacking plants to stay open, the White House said nothing about providing additional pay for those workers, even though thousands of them have contracted the coronavirus and at least 20 have died.

“How can you expect people to show up and keep it together when you’re basically just giving them chicken feed?”

- Amazon warehouse worker

Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist at the Labor Department, said she sees the current frustrations as the continuation of a 40-year-trend of workers losing bargaining power. She said many were right to feel underpaid before the pandemic began; now the risk makes their earnings feel like an insult.

“We had an extremely unbalanced system before, where the growth of the economy has been captured largely by the people at the top, and not broadly shared, for decades,” said Shierholz, now the policy director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Policymakers should absolutely be stepping in and making sure these workers have hazard pay.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union has managed to negotiate extra pay for most of the workers it represents in the grocery and meatpacking industries, the union’s president, Marc Perrone, told HuffPost.

Perrone noted that the union has no “pandemic clause” in its contracts, so had to start from scratch when the coronavirus began to spread. In some cases, the increase is a percentage of hourly pay; in others it has been nominal, like $2 per hour at Kroger, and $4 at the meatpacker JBS, which has seen a rash of outbreaks in its plants.

“If the risks are higher, then you need to pay them,” Perrone said. “That’s the rule of the capitalist system.”

Julie, the Whole Foods worker, said she has limited her work schedule to reduce the chance of contracting COVID-19. The additional $2 per hour hasn’t encouraged her to take on more work, and she doesn’t expect her employer to further boost pay, given the tight profit margins in the grocery industry.

She wishes Congress and the White House would step in for the sake of her co-workers.

“If it allows people to feel better about this dangerous work that they’re doing right now, then I think that’s a really good thing,” she said. “We’re keeping this food supply chain going. I mean, we are heroes right now.”

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