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For newly “essential” workers, benefits are still limited

A cashier wears mask, gloves and a plastic visor at the checkout station Pat's Farms grocery store on March 31 in Merrick, New York

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

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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?

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