An employee at work in the meat department of a Florida supermarket. Such workers are considered essential and are taking risks during the pandemic but are not highly paid. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Who should pay for hazard pay?

Kristin Schwab Jul 24, 2020
Heard on:
An employee at work in the meat department of a Florida supermarket. Such workers are considered essential and are taking risks during the pandemic but are not highly paid. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sixteen dollars an hour — that’s how much Rashad Lloyd was making at Total Wine & More in Virginia in March. Now, he’s making $14 because his hazard pay expired in April. And he feels pretty stuck. It’s not like there are a lot of other jobs out there.

“There’s absolutely no alternative right now, and a lot of these companies understand that there’s no alternative,” he said.

Back in March, when stay-at-home orders began, a bunch of businesses were giving essential workers hazard pay, typically a $2-an-hour boost. Now, even though the pandemic is surging in much of the country, hazard pay has mostly disappeared.

That’s partly because at the beginning of the pandemic, companies were worried employees wouldn’t show up to work.

“The power dynamics have changed,” said Erin Hatton, a professor of labor sociology at the State University of New York, Buffalo. “Employers are more easily finding workers, so they’re decreasing incentives to bring workers into the workplace.”

Companies also feel like they don’t have to pay extra because stay-at-home orders have lifted. And aside from big companies like Amazon and Kroger, a lot of businesses can’t afford to give hazard pay forever.

“Business owners need to be supported by governments. I mean, this cannot be an employer enterprise,” Hatton said.

Now, states are stepping in. This week, Pennsylvania established a grant program for businesses to offer bonuses for workers in healthcare, transit, food manufacturing and food retailing.

That’s one way governments could support essential workers. They could also offer companies incentives, like tax breaks. Or mandate that companies pay up, though that means businesses that are already struggling would continue to foot the bill.

A government mandate would also do something else: create rules and guidelines around hazard pay.

Before the pandemic, most people would never have called a grocery store worker’s job dangerous. And now that we’ve reopened much of the economy, with the virus still a threat, many would argue hairstylists and restaurant servers are doing dangerous work, too, said Nicole Hallett, a professor of labor law at the University of Chicago. 

“The definition of what we considered to be hazardous work, what is hazardous work, has changed.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

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Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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