As retail giants enjoy soaring profits, workers demand hazard pay amid soaring pandemic

"America's essential workers are facing a holiday season of unparalleled danger."

Published November 26, 2020 2:49PM (EST)

 (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)
(Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at Common Dreams. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely.

As the holiday shopping rush begins, organized frontline retail workers this week are demanding a $5-per-hour hazard pay increase and better protections for the duration of the pandemic — demanding that major corporations use their record profits during the Covid-19 crisis to ensure living wages and safety for the people who keep their operations running.

United for Respect, a movement started by Amazon and Walmart workers, launched its "Five to Survive" campaign as public health officials warned that Americans' Thanksgiving plans could contribute to a new nationwide surge in Covid-19 cases — on top of the one currently taking place — as shoppers begin to flood retail stores and supermarkets in preparation for the rest of the holiday season. 

As Common Dreams reported last week, many major retailers gave hazard pay to their essential workers in the early months of the pandemic, but at some companies, the bonuses and temporary raises were gone almost as soon as they were offered.

According to a report by Public Citizen, of the 15 biggest retail giants in the U.S., nine of them have entirely halted bonuses and hazard pay — but not for lack of funds. Those nine companies have reported $10.5 billion more in profits this year than in 2019, and have spent billions on stock buybacks since ending the hazard pay. 

In addition to providing $5 more per hour to frontline workers, the Five to Survive campaign demands major retail companies — including Amazon, Walmart, Petco, and Petsmart — must:

  • Offer paid and unpaid leave, including 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of emergency paid family leave in case retail workers have to take time off to care for loved ones.
  • Notify associates of positive Covid-19 cases in stores and warehouses and pay for testing, contact tracing and treatment as well as providing full pay to workers who need to self-isolate after a positive case is detected.
  • Include workers in decision-making regarding safety measures and protocol.
  • Protect associates from retaliation if they speak out about working conditions or health hazards or if they take advantage of any of the above policies. 

"Amazon is acting like the pandemic is over. They canceled the measly $2 bonus back in June. Jeff Bezos has made $70 billion since March when the pandemic started," said Courtenay Brown, an Amazon Fresh worker in New Jersey. "Amazon calls us heroes in their commercials, they call us essential, but it feels like we are expendable. We need Five to Survive. $5 per hour in essential pay, safety on the job, and real protections from retaliation."

A Washington Post analysis published Monday found that at least 131 grocery store workers have died of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, but the authors noted that the actual number is likely much larger. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has reported that 350 of its members have died of the disease.

"America's essential workers are facing a holiday season of unparalleled danger," Marc Perrone, president of the UFCW, told reporters Monday. "With more than one million new Covid-19 cases in the past week, and deaths spiking to unprecedented levels, we are entering what could be the deadliest phase of this pandemic for millions of America's essential front-line workers." 

Separate from the Five to Survive campaign, the UFCW on Monday demanded greater safety protections for retail workers.

According to a recent Brookings Institution analysis of 13 major companies, including Walmart, Kroger, and Target, the retail giants' profits have risen 39% since the beginning of the pandemic while the average pay for frontline workers has risen just 10%, or $1.11 per hour.

Melissa Love, a Walmart associate in Long Beach, California, criticized her employer for approaching the holiday season as though the pandemic isn't currently overwhelming hospitals across the country, raising the risk that people who contract Covid-19 in the coming weeks will not be able to access care — without providing protections or proper compensation to its retail workers. 

"This pandemic is threatening Black lives and killing Black people at twice the rate of whites, but it's a boom for Walmart's owning family, who has made $48.1 billion dollars since March," said Melissa Love, a Walmart associate in Long Beach, California. "When the CDC is saying that Americans should not gather our families for Thanksgiving dinner, I do not believe that Walmart should be trying to entice crowds into our stores on Black Friday, and risk a Walmart super-spreader event."

The National Employment Law Project and the Action Center on Race and the Economy have both expressed support for the Five to Survive campaign, saying the demands amount to "common sense steps that big retails should take."

By Julia Conley

Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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Amazon Common Dreams Covid-19 Five To Survive Hazard Pay Ufcw Walmart