Essential Workers Deserve More Than Praise

March 18, 2021 by Victoria Turner
Penny Cracas, with the Chester County, Pa., Health Department, fills a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in West Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Lisa Harris has not physically seen her family since the beginning of the pandemic just to keep them safe from her. She is one of the 50 million essential workers fearing the virus every day, yet still going into work as a grocery cashier, wondering if that will be the day she contracts COVID-19. 

Her story, among others, was introduced today during a Brookings Institution event entitled, “Essential Workers: A year into the pandemic.” Despite being one of the more fortunate ones, as Harris’ union fought for her health care plan, she noted a lot of her associates have not had the same luck. 

“There are people who are working here that are checking out [other] people’s food who are buying their own food with food stamps,” said Harris, pointing out that she also often sees associates being mistreated by customers refusing to wear a mask.

Jeffrey Reid, a meat clerk for over 12 years, complained that companies have rolled back their hazard pay for essential workers who have to go to work when it is “still hazardous out here.” He called the rollback a, “slap in the face.”

It is not enough to praise these workers, call them heroes and thank them, said City Councilor Teresa Mosqueda of the Seattle City Council. They deserve better pay, benefits and protections, she said.

Putting up a sign saying “Heroes Work Here,” she said, “does not pay the rent, that does not put food on the table.” 

Mosqueda said that the profits of these “pandemic profiteers,” like grocery chain Kroger, “skyrocketed” this last year – yet they rolled back their hazard pay, replacing it with $5 gas cards. This rollback led Seattle to enforce a Hazard Pay Mandate for a $4 an hour increase, favored by 73% of Seattleites, which has now spread out across the state of Washington. Some grocery stores like Trader Joe’s not only adopted the mandate in the region but nationally.

In 2016, a year after Seattle increased its minimum wage to $15, the city saw a two-fold increase of restaurants opening rather than closing, Mosqueda said, contrary to what opponents to raising the minimum wage had argued. The entire state then followed suit and adopted the minimum wage bump, including paid sick leave. 

This example coupled with the last recession’s data has shown that the best way to “weather economic downturns” is to invest in lower-wage workers, Mosqueda claimed. Seattle, she added, has “weathered” the pandemic better than most cities due to progressive policies such as the increased minimum wage and hazard pay. She said that these policies are in effect reinvestments in the livelihoods of American citizens.

Progressive taxation “is not a penalty.” She added that it provides dollars that will be spent in public programs and services for better wages, safe working conditions, health care, child care, affordable housing, transportation, and other core government services.

At a national level, for example, child care closures range over 40%, she said. Seattle has experienced child care closures ranging from 7% to 10%. 

Adequate pay for the essential worker is a must, said Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, which also enacted a Hazard Pay grant program. “Pay is key” to a thriving economy, but the pandemic has also highlighted the “compound issues” of inequality that have long been embedded across the nation. When Wolf expanded Medicaid in Pennsylvania, for example, it drove the uninsured rate to an all-time low of 5% for the state. 

“But that is still 5% of folks who are one emergency away from complete disaster and a lot of those folks are on our frontlines,” Wolf said.

“It is stupid not to pay people we depend on to make them want to actually come to work and do a good job for us,” he added.

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