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Essential Workers. Who Cares?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Author: Dr. RL Booker

When looking at the top 350 companies in the United States, a study found that from 1978 to 2018, the wage growth of very high earners grew by 339%; the S&P stock market growth was 707%, and the growth for CEO compensation grew by 1,008%. (Economic Policy Institute, 2019). These numbers show that hard work and persistence lead to a trickle-down of revenue and wealth building. Oh, but wait, we have to also include the wage growth of the typical worker, which grew by a heartbreaking 11.9%. Cheers to the “pull up your bootstraps” motto. These numbers are significant because this doesn't just impact the millions of Americans who work for those 350 companies, it also impacts many more employees at companies that have many of the same pay practices. In a 2019 hearing before Congress, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, an award-winning labor economist proclaimed, “We have got to look at the economic underpinnings of the inequality that exists in this country, the wealth gap that exists in this country, and the differences that it makes.“

2020 has been a year of devastation, heartbreak, and revelation. We are still in the midst of a very serious pandemic in which over 24 million people worldwide have contracted COVID-19 and over 840,000 people have died. During this time, entire world economies have shut down, in an attempt, to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus. While my wife and I have been fortunate to be able to work from home, I cannot overlook the millions of Americans who do not have that luxury. I am referring to the grocery store workers, building cleaners and janitors, mass transit and airport workers, healthcare providers, emergency personnel, and many many more. No one will dispute the fact that the vast majority of people around the world have always respected healthcare providers and emergency personnel, but how did we view the other workers who are now deemed “essential”. I am sure if I were to step back into February of this year before the pandemic started, I would be hard-pressed to find a majority who would have agreed that essential workers are those millions of Americans who are literally risking their lives to keep this country afloat. The risks these workers are taking comes at a significant cost. According to Stephen Prince multimillionaire and CEO of National Business Products, "everybody in this country, if not the world, but certainly this country, deserves health care. You don't need to have to make the decision whether you're going to eat or go to the doctor. If you are sick you should be able to go to the doctor and receive health care." (NowThis News, 2019).

Of the 25 richest nations in the world, the United States is the only one that does not have universal healthcare. There is also no national law guaranteeing workers sick days. Some states have laws guaranteeing it, but others do not. 34 million workers (24%), in the U.S., do not have paid sick leave (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). This means that a lot of people will be going to work in a potentially hazardous environment. In the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), Congress passed a lackluster bill requiring companies with less than 500 people to provide at least two weeks of emergency sick leave if the person contracts the virus, is quarantining, caring for a family member, or having to stay home to care for one’s child. Nonetheless, companies employing 500 people or less only employ 20% of U.S. workers. So that means workers at large companies like Target, Amazon, JBS, Subway, and Starbucks are not covered under the FFCRA. It is important that workers have paid sick leave as this is what will help mitigate the spread of the virus. Many of you reading this, like me, have been afforded the benefit to work from home. I implore us to think about if our circumstances were different would we have the courage to press forward to work in spite of the realities that exist. Would this seem fair? If not, now ask yourself the question as to why many of us are once again treating frontline workers as if their lives do not matter?

These workers are faced with unfair pay for their extraordinary work and courage. Yes, I said courage. Anyone who stares directly into the eyes of a pandemic that has taken more than 840,000 lives and still makes the decision to put themselves in harm's way is the very definition of courageous. Most companies define hazard pay as about 20% of a worker's current pay, which means most workers who were already making about $8.00-$11.00 per hour received about $2.00-$3.00 an hour extra. Some companies did not do hazard pay hourly increases, instead, they did one time bonuses of about $300. This is a few dollars extra to put your life on the line, to make sure you provide for your family, and to sink just a little bit less in a society where you have for so long been marginalized and taken for granted.

I was recently listening to the National Public Radio (NPR) and two stories from these courageous workers really stood out to me:

  • “It feels like Starbucks could've been paying me this the whole time, and they're just choosing to do it now to help me feel better, but it's not really paying what I need.” - Sammy Conde

  • “We are exposed to thousands of people because everybody including those doctors and nurses all have to go to a grocery store to get their food…Last week I think there were three days I just woke up crying because I just can't do this anymore, I'm exhausted…people are...yelling at us, cussing at us — because we won't do returns, because we're asking them to wear a mask, because we're telling them they can't use their reusable bags." - Christine Smith

Nicholas Bloom, Harvard Business Review Economist says that when you look at American corporations it is clear that, “the rich have got richer, the middle has kind of tapered along, and the poor have actually done worse over time…inequality has gone up dramatically.” Wages in America have stagnated since the 1970s. While corporations have continued to make more and more money from the productivity and innovation of its employees, wages, specifically for the typical worker, have not kept up with the increased profits of the companies. So, the question that arises in my mind is one of morality. Is it right to pay a worker fair pay for a day’s work? I believe that the answer is a resounding, YES! In 1978 the average price for a new home was about $58,000. In 2020, the average sale price for a new home is $403,000, which is 35% more than what it should be when accounting for inflation. This reality makes it very hard for the typical worker to afford what everyone calls the American Dream. Instead of paying workers what they deserve many companies will layoff low paid employees and outsource their cleaning personnel and any other low-paid job titles. This in turn, “probably makes the low paid employees' life worse because now they’re all working in outsourced firms, which typically tend to keep a tighter eye on salaries….[and] tend to pay less” (Carmichael, 2017).

Whether corporations want to acknowledge it, the fact is, they have not paid workers what they deserve. The reality at this very moment is that the workers actually hold the power. If they decided to walk off the job and protest for fair pay, this sluggish economy that is holding on by a thread would break. While it should not have to get to that point, it could be our reality in the near future. My assumption is that most workers will not walk off the job, because they do not have the margin of error as someone who makes a higher wage and savings to fall back on. In the end, the two questions we should all consider before the November 3rd general election are, Is it right to pay a person the wage they deserve? Does everyone deserve universal healthcare?


References - APA Citing

Carmichael, S.G. (Host). (2017, March 23). The Rise of Corporate Inequality. [Audio podcast episode]. In Harvard Business Review.

John Hopkins University of Medicine. (2020, June 20). COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE).

Mishel, L., & Wolfe, J. (2019). CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978. Economic Policy Institute.

NowThis News. (2019, January 12). Why This ‘Patriotic’ Millionaire Wants to Raise Taxes on the Rich. [Video].

NPR. (2020, May 30). As 'Hero' Pay Ends, Essential Workers Wonder What They Are Worth. NPR, KUAF.

PBS News Hour. (2019, June 19). Watch: Cory Booker, Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss slavery reparations at House Judiciary hearing. [Video].

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2019 March). Employee Benefits Survey. United States Department of Labor.

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