The pandemic has had an unexpected effect on some of the lowest-paid workers in the country: It has made society realize they’re essential.
Grocery store workers, delivery drivers, caregivers, and janitors have continued showing up for work, putting their lives on the line to keep the country functioning. Some have been hailed as heroes and awarded hazard pay.
But even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage nationwide, many temporary wage increases have come to an end. The lawn signs hailing front-line workers are fading; the thank-yous have dwindled.
So what happens now? Will the attention paid to these often invisible, undervalued workers lead to permanent improvements, such as a higher federal minimum wage and increased safety measures? Or will they be forgotten — and left still at risk?
A public that’s growing increasingly aware of the realities of these jobs could push politicians and employers to act, said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been studying essential workers — though she noted there are fierce headwinds working against such a shift, as businesses grapple with steep financial losses. Still, the spotlight put on this critical workforce, revealing people with families who often aren’t making enough to live on, could be a powerful force for change.
“Society can’t un-see what we’ve seen,” Kinder said. “As more privileged Americans hunkered down and safely worked from home and suddenly relied on a front-line workforce that they maybe never paid attention to, I think there was a new sense that, ‘Wow, my life, I couldn’t go on without these workers . . . and they’re sacrificing so much.”
None of the relief bills passed by Congress have included protections for essential employees, and that seems unlikely to change with the new measure being debated. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden supports premium pay for front-line workers, in addition to a federal $15 minimum wage and tougher worker-safety regulations.
A bill being considered by the Massachusetts Legislature would mandate time-and-a-half hazard pay for essential workers, but it has made little progress since it was filed in April.
Nationwide, only 12 percent of companies have offered hazard pay, according to Just Capital, and many that did have ended it.
Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic senators have called on major grocery stores to reinstate the wage increase, considering the risk — at least 12,405 grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and 93 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
“Going to work is life-or-death for workers right now,” Kinder said. “How can we as a country justify anyone risking their life for peanuts?”
Joe Koffi cares for elderly patients “from head to toe,” some of them sick with COVID-19, at a nursing home in Worcester. “I’m completely, 100 percent afraid,” he said. But the $3 an hour bump he’s been making as a certified nursing assistant ended last week, reducing his hourly wage back to $14.
“The COVID is still everywhere,” said Koffi, 61, who is originally from Ivory Coast. “Why are they taking this money away?”
The state doesn’t track COVID-19 cases by industry, but a look at the hardest-hit cities reveals a clear pattern. In the five cities with the highest rates of positive COVID tests, at least half the working population is on the front lines, according to the UMass Donahue Institute. These cities — Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence and Lynn — are also among the municipalities with the largest shares of people of color.
Latino and Black residents are three times more likely to become infected as white people, according to a New York Times analysis. And their prevalence in low-wage front-line jobs is clearly a factor. Many of the worst COVID outbreaks have occurred in sectors that employ a disproportionate number of Black workers, including public transportation, meatpacking, and nursing homes, according to Brookings.
Despite making up less than 17 percent of the workforce in Massachusetts, Blacks and Latinos account for roughly 60 percent of nursing and home-care aids and personal care attendants, according to census data. About a third of janitors and food-preparation workers and a quarter of child-care workers are Latino; more than a third of taxi and ride-service drivers are Black.
Abdias Gonzalez continued cleaning at a Foxborough office complex, with no hazard pay, until she tested positive for COVID in mid-April, along with three of her co-workers. Gonzalez never developed symptoms but had to stay home until she tested negative. Now she’s back on the job, with fewer hours, still making just under $16 an hour and starting to slip into debt.
“The company hasn’t treated us like we’re so essential,” Gonzalez, 47, said in Spanish through a translator. “We have protective equipment, but that’s where it ends. There’s no recognition of the risk we’re facing or any special treatment or training.”
MBTA bus driver Catisha Berment, 48, is also back at work, after getting sick with COVID in April. (At the MBTA, 177 employees have tested positive, and one has died. No hazard pay has been provided.) Passengers, not all of them in masks, are allowed to board through the front again, sometimes standing right beside her as they load their Charlie Cards. Despite the glass barrier around her, said Berment, who is Black, “my anxiety is still high.”
A survey of 2,600 essential workers in Massachusetts by the UMass Labor Center at the height of the pandemic, in late April, found that a majority did not feel safe, and those who made less than $20 an hour were two to three times less likely to have safety gear or health insurance.
For Black and Latino workers, it’s worse. More than 70 percent of them reported not feeling safe, compared to 58 percent of white employees. Workers of color also had less access to paid sick leave and were more likely to be struggling to pay for food, child care, and housing.
And, according to the National Employment Law Project, Black workers are twice as likely as whites to be punished when they raise COVID-related concerns.
“The existing labor market inequalities have really been amplified by the effect of the pandemic,” said coauthor Clare Hammonds of the UMass Labor Center. These workers “are being treated as disposable while being held up as heroes.”
Ahalya Raman, a counselor for the homeless in Northampton, works in close proximity with a traumatized population that doesn’t always wear masks and sleeps on the streets. Raman, 26, who is South Asian and makes $13.25 an hour, hasn’t received hazard pay, but her union is fighting for a retroactive bump. “Who knows what we’ve been exposed to,” she said.
With so many businesses suffering steep financial losses, efforts to help essential workers may not get far, said Kinder of the Brookings Institution. And companies whose sales have been soaring don’t need to do much to fill front-line jobs, considering unemployment is so high, she said.
Amazon ended hazard pay in June, but following an outcry it gave front-line workers a small bonus. Walmart never raised hourly pay for store employees but has been doling out similar bonuses. Lowe’s and Home Depot have continued to give hourly workers small bonuses.
Quincy-based Stop & Shop, where sales have also jumped, ended its 10 percent increase in early July. Dan Natale a 47-year-old produce manager in Seekonk, said it’s unfortunate the extra pay is gone. The thank-yous from customers have dwindled, too.
“It’s just human nature,” he said, “that we celebrate things for a short time.”