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How long will benefits like hazard pay and paid sick leave last after the pandemic ends? Al Bello/Getty Images

For newly “essential” workers, benefits are still limited

Kimberly Adams Apr 15, 2020
How long will benefits like hazard pay and paid sick leave last after the pandemic ends? Al Bello/Getty Images

Doctors and nurses are on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Marketplace has been covering, many other workers also provide essential services. They’re also at risk of getting sick — and some are dying.

Which has many workers newly questioning their pay and benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the concerns of grocery store stockers and cashiers, package and restaurant delivery folks and food-service workers.

Like Terrence Wise, who works at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Missouri. Even though he’s suddenly an essential worker, his benefits are nonexistent.

“I have no benefits,” Wise said. “No healthcare, no paid sick days, no dental.”

Not to mention life insurance or retirement contributions.

Maureen Conway, executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute, said the pandemic has changed the political discourse around benefits for low-wage workers.

“But I’m not seeing companies sort of step up and say, ‘We’re changing our policies in terms of our health insurance plans and coverage’ as much as I’m seeing some action on the hazard pay and paid sick,” Conway said.

Measures Amazon, Walmart and certain grocery stores are doing on a temporary basis. Keith Hollingsworth, professor of management at Morehouse College, is skeptical it will last.

“When we come out of this, think how many people are going to be desperate for work and will take almost anything to help pay for the bills,” Hollingsworth said.

So businesses may have little incentive to change benefit policies in the long term. But Conway said public perception has changed — at least for the time being.

“We are now newly recognizing grocery store workers and delivery drivers as valued workers,” she said. “How do we really, truly value that work going forward?”

And will that translate into new benefits for these workers once the crisis has passed?

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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