Share

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic shined a light on an emerging class of workers. They are the overlooked people who stock the shelves at Amazon’s cavernous warehouses, shop for our food in supermarkets, deliver packages from Target, drive Ubers and engage in a variety of gig-economy and lower-wage work. Their jobs put them at high risk and make them vulnerable to contracting the disease. In a show of appreciation, the public enthusiastically heralded them as  “heroes,” alongside the medical and health professionals treating Covid-19 patients.

Businesses deemed nonessential were ordered to cease their operations by state and municipal government mandates. A handful of big retailers, such as Amazon, Kroger, Rite Aid, Costco and Walmart, were allowed the privilege to remain open during the pandemic. These fortunate stores reaped the benefits and realized significant increases in revenue. The stock share prices of their companies held up or skyrocketed higher, whereas their competitors floundered.

Most people were afraid to venture outside for fear of contracting Covid-19. They preferred the comfort and safety of shopping online at home or delegating their tasks and needs to others. The enormity of the change in shopping attitudes was evidenced in Amazon and Instacart, the shopping-on-demand tech company, hiring 100,000 and 300,000 new employees, respectively.

The low-wage, gig-economy workers became the backbone of the economy, as almost everyone holed up at home. They are the hard-working people you don’t think about. They lift and stack heavy boxes, load trucks, pack supplies at fulfillment centers, navigate the grocery store aisles for your online food orders and drive trucks and deliver goods to your doorstep.

As the virus swept the country, the “hero” workers vocalized their frustrations over the lack of proper protective equipment, gear and clothing that put their health in jeopardy. They also complained that they were not fairly compensated for the health risks they were made to endure. Corporations, in an effort to retain the desperately needed workers and assuage public opinion, offered hazard pay. This amounted to a token-type increase of merely a couple extra  dollars to their minimum hourly wages for a certain period of time.

The short-term incentive wasn’t sufficient and workers felt shortchanged. There were scattered walkouts at companies, including Amazon, to protest unsafe conditions. In the beginning of May, a group of workers at Amazon and its Whole Foods supermarket division, Target-owned Shipt delivery service, Walmart, FedEX and Instacart protested by walking off of their jobs or calling out sick on Friday, May 1. The date of the protest was symbolic. May 1 is known as “May Day,” also called “International Workers’ Day.” The date and protest was meant to send a message that workers could take on the big corporations and their wealthy CEOs. The movement received scant media attention and didn’t evoke any change.

Workers were particularly perturbed by the fact that companies, such as Amazon, were earning record profits. Online behemoth Amazon benefited with a huge increase in business. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO, earned billions of dollars during the shutdown.

As time progressed and over 60 million Americans lost their jobs, companies started withdrawing the raises. They cited that the enhanced pay was only intended for the short term, as well as the need to keep funds available for potential future downturns in the economy and to pay for higher expenses incurred with keeping up with implementing procedures to ensure the safety of workers and customers. For instance, Home Depot said it needed to spend $850 million to provide for the safety of its stores’ workers and consumers.

According to the New York Times, “[These essential workers] were hailed as heroes during the first wave of the pandemic, but wage increases were fleeting, and companies, whose businesses are booming, have been slow to pay out more.” They are not being provided with the “same level of bonuses and raises this time, even as the health risks for them increase.”

It’s not surprising that the companies haven’t reinstated “hazard” or “hero” pay increases. The reality is that these corporations care more about their bottom line. CEOs and executives want larger bonuses and stock options. Consumers desire at-home shopping, cheap prices and immediate service, but don’t want to pay for higher prices on their food and clothes, which comes along with wage increases.

Americans are experiencing pandemic fatigue. After eight long months, they’re tired. They’ve either lost their jobs, are worried about losing their jobs, eating into their savings and concerned about an uncertain future. There is seemingly little empathy left for the workers.

Corporate executives now feel that they have the upper hand, as millions of people are out of work. The bottom-line-focused managers will demure on enhancing the wages of the workers  that lack political power and connections. They’ll contend it’s not warranted to offer larger wages and better benefits when there’s a massive amount of people eager to take any job to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s heads.

It’s a sad state of affairs that the job-loss crisis and fragile economy will favor big companies, at the expense of workers. It’s simple supply and demand. As more people become unemployed, there will be an overflow of applicants for jobs. With so many job seekers, newly hired and current workers will have less bargaining leverage. There will continue to be more unemployed people available to do the tough, back-breaking, unglamorous and potentially health-threatening jobs. With available job seekers, the companies have the upper hand. If someone complains or asks for increased pay, they can be easily replaced now that there are millions of people looking for jobs.

Source: Forbes