A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 5, 2021

Essential Workers Now Recognize Their Value And Refuse To Settle For Less

There are now approximately 9 million job openings in the US.

Many of them remain unfilled because essential workers have come to recognize their value and refuse to return to old jobs or accept new ones for which compensation and hours do not reflect that changed perception. JL 

Alexander Nieves reports in Politico:

The pandemic forced Americans to recalculate the value of workers in traditionally low-wage sectors. It became clearer than ever that our economy and social systems needed their workplaces - like the local grocery store or pharmacy - to stay open to function. Hazard pay, voluntary bonuses and other labor shifts during the pandemic reset the expectations for earnings across the income spectrum, from highly paid tech workers to low-wage cashiers. Essential workers now recognize that they are essential and are reluctant to return to roles they see as underpaying. More than 9 million jobs are unfilled.
Tony Campanello, who runs the frozen food section at a Ralphs supermarket in Long Beach, has worked in nearly every department of the store since taking the job nearly 44 years ago. 
He has seen the name on the front of the store and his uniform change numerous times over those years and said he often felt unappreciated, like he was “just a number” to the sprawling grocery conglomerate that owns Ralphs. 
Then the pandemic hit. 
In the early days, unsure of how the virus spread, everyone with the ability to stay home, did — and wiped down their mail and groceries with disinfectant. But like so many other employees deemed “essential” when the country shut down, Campanello and his coworkers didn’t have that option. Instead, they continued to show up at work and do their jobs, despite being in “fear for our own lives.” 
Signs began to pop up around the state calling essential workers heroes and thanking them for their service. Kroger, the corporate giant that owns Ralphs, even briefly offered their workers a $2 per hour pay bump and a $400 bonus early in the pandemic.

That surreal period underscored a truth that activists had been pointing to for years but that hadn’t made its way into mainstream politics: Many of the workers we couldn’t live without are paid the least for their so-called essential labor.

Company hazard pay didn’t last long, but a few dozen cities and counties in California extended the practice for a few months this year in a kind of natural experiment: Would a boost in salary for lower-wage workers lead to tangible benefits for them and their communities without bankrupting their employers?

In January, the City Council in Long Beach voted to require grocery employers to pay frontline workers an extra $4 per hour for 120 days — an idea that would have been unthinkable in a pre-pandemic world.

Businesses, union leaders and labor market economists agree that the push for mandated hazard pay began late last year after a Brookings Institution report showed that companies like Kroger and Amazon reported huge profits during the first two quarters after the country shut down, but stopped providing hazard pay voluntarily by June of last year.

This year’s extra pay brought about by city ordinance proved to be critical for Campanello, helping him grow his savings and cover first and last month’s rent on a new apartment after he unexpectedly had to move — an already stressful process made worse by a booming regional housing market. More important, he said, was that the extra pay made him feel that grocery workers had been recognized as people of value.

“For Long Beach to say, these guys are up front, they need to be recognized for it, yeah, that made me feel a lot better about everything,” he said. “As far as being a human being goes.”

Campanello is among the millions of essential workers around the country who have received pay increases since the pandemic began. Those funds have come in a range of sizes and forms — from $1,000 bonuses for teachers in Georgia to $4 per hour raises for state employees in Montana.

In effect, the pandemic forced Americans to recalculate the value of workers in traditionally low-wage sectors in a way that hasn’t occurred in recent memory. White-collar workers were largely able to hunker down at home during the pandemic, even as they had to cancel vacations, skip dinners out, or attend to “Zoom school.” But essential workers experienced a far different pandemic, and it became clearer than ever that our economy and social systems needed their workplaces — like the local grocery store or pharmacy — to stay open to function.

“Clearly the value [low-wage workers] are providing, the value they’re adding to services and so on, was probably higher than was previously perceived,” said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Hazard pay and other pandemic-related pay increases have proven to be a boon for many essential workers, helping them pay for medical bills or save for a rainy day. Industry groups, however, say those policies could force some smaller employers out of business or cause them to think twice about operating in a higher-wage city.

In no state have these policies been more popular than California. Following the lead of Long Beach, 37 cities and counties have passed temporary ordinances this year that require certain grocery and retail businesses to pay employees $4 to $5 more per hour. Only a handful of cities outside of the state, including Seattle, have similarly required employers to cover worker pay increases themselves.

California’s $14 hourly minimum wage is already the second-highest in the country behind Washington, D.C., but a $4 to $5 per hour pay bump represents a significant increase for many of the state's low-wage workers, increasing their paychecks by up to 35 percent.

In California and across the country, wages for lower- and middle-class workers have been stagnant for decades, even as the economic productivity of companies has grown. The inflation-adjusted hourly earnings for low-wage workers increased by just 4 percent in California from 1979 to 2018, according to the left-leaning California Budget and Policy Center.

Unions and anti-poverty activists have argued for years that many American workers are paid too little to live on and have pushed for higher minimum wages, among other policies. Business groups have argued that paying higher wages would force them to cut the number of workers they could employ.

In some ways, the pandemic provided a chance to see which side might be right; while the results are somewhat mixed, it’s clear that the lives of workers like Campanello did improve markedly even from the short-term increases.

Months into the pandemic, as businesses continued shutting down and unemployment was soaring, Jackie Lopez looked for a job in the grocery industry, where she hoped to find more job security after the liquor store where she’d worked cut her hours.

A mother of three young children who lives in Huntington Park, a small city southeast of Los Angeles, Lopez was hired as a part-time clerk at El Super, a regional chain of supermarkets.




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