If you're 'essential' enough to work through a coronavirus pandemic, you're essential enough to be paid living wage

Matthew Fleischer
An employee of the Trader Joe's store in Monrovia tells customers waiting in line that it would open doors to everyone at 9 am.  (Los Angeles Times)

My first trip to Trader Joe’s since the start of California’s coronavirus lockdown had all the trappings of order and security. A polite line formed out front, with everyone keeping a respectful and socially distant 6 feet apart. No more than 50 people were allowed in the store at the same time. A worker squirted a dollop of sanitizer into the hands of each and every shopper entering the store. Another wiped down the handles of each shopping cart before use.

Inside, however, despite workers' best efforts, there was only so much that could be done to stay safe. The aisles were narrow, the shoppers nervous.

It felt like a vector for disease. And, frankly, it probably was. Grocery stores are one of the only places where people are still allowed to congregate. If you’re going to be exposed to the coronavirus, it will most likely be there.

Aware of this danger, my 15 minutes inside the store were stressful, to say the least. But my fears were undoubtedly nothing compared with those of the workers stuck in the middle of it all.

Shelves needed to stocked. Groceries bagged. Cash handled. The flow of customers — any one of them with the potential to spread the virus — was nonstop.

“You guys deserve a serious raise,” I told the worker who bagged my groceries. “Did you get one?”

She didn’t look up.

“We got a onetime bonus,” she eventually answered, her eyes still lowered. “It was a couple of hundred bucks.”

A couple of hundred bucks to put her life on the line to prevent mass upheaval and panic.

Deservedly, much praise has gone to the healthcare professionals who are battling COVID-19, many of them without sufficient safety gear. But there are other “essential” workers in harm’s way too. And for their heroics, they are, by and large, paid next to nothing. They have limited access to affordable healthcare. And paid sick leave, where it exists, is still often frowned upon due to inadequate staffing.

And it isn’t just grocery workers. Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island are walking off their jobs Monday in pursuit of more protections from coronavirus and fairer pay. Instacart workers nationwide are doing the same.

Employees of Whole Foods announced plans to strike this Tuesday, to demand the company pay for coronavirus testing, provide paid leave for ill and self-quarantining workers, as well as hazard pay for those working during the pandemic.

Good for them.

If you’re "essential" enough to work through a coronavirus pandemic, you’re essential enough to be paid a living wage and to have access to paid sick leave and affordable healthcare.

Here’s the thing: Working conditions for these employees are always dangerous. Coronavirus has heightened that danger, but it was always present.

Seasonal influenza alone still kills anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 Americans a year. We’ve internalized those deaths as the cost of doing business. But that’s absurd.

We pay millions of workers poorly, and if we offer them health insurance, the deductibles and copayments are often high enough to render the coverage useless. To keep costs down, stores are intentionally understaffed, so that when a worker stays home sick, his or her already overworked colleagues have to pick up the slack. And so people come in when they shouldn’t.

Workers suffer. Their families suffer. And we all suffer when they give us whatever contagious disease they picked up on the job. It’s outrageous.

All so that Jeff Bezos can have the resources to build himself a floating space pod when all goes to hell on Earth.

Inequality puts everyone at risk. That risk now is certainly heightened with the emergency of COVID-19. But it was always present.

If your work is important enough that society will collapse into chaos without you, you deserve to be paid accordingly. You deserve to be able to stay home when you’re sick. And you deserve access to affordable healthcare if you need it. We shouldn’t have needed a deadly coronavirus pandemic to show us that, but it’s blindingly obvious now.

Updates:
1:57 PM, Mar. 30, 2020: This piece has been updated to include news of an impending Whole Foods employee strike on Tuesday.