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Companies are getting creative to pay workers as little as they can get away with in the pandemic

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Unemployment remains high, Republicans allowed expanded unemployment benefits to expire, and retail companies are using that desperation to get vulnerable people to risk their health or their lives for low, low wages. Early on in the pandemic, many retail chains paid their workers some amount of hazard pay. It was usually an inadequate amount and often wasn’t backed up by a commitment to safety, but it was something.

Well, no more. Most of the companies that offered hazard pay back in the spring have phased it out, often replacing it with bonuses, so workers aren’t tempted to think of it as part of their hourly pay and fight to keep it. And, The New York Times reports, many of those same companies have spent far more buying back stock to benefit their shareholders even as they strategize carefully to avoid paying their workers a penny more than they have to. All while coronavirus rates are again surging.

Kroger initially gave workers $2 an hour in hazard pay, then took it away even though the pandemic didn’t go away. Workers have protested, but so far the company’s big generous offer is fuel discounts and a $100 store credit for “holiday appreciation.” 

According to its recent quarterly report, Lowe’s workers have gotten $800 million in pandemic extras—which sounds like a fair bit of money until you read that the company spent $1 billion on buybacks and dividends in the third quarter and plans to spend another $3 billion in the fourth quarter.

Dollar General says it will add $100 million in extra money for workers to the $73 million it’s already paid out. It’s planning $2 billion in stock buybacks on top of $602 million it’s already spent. Dollar General also initially refused to participate in a Vermont program that paid workers extra money funneled through their employers.

This was literally free money for the underpaid workers of Dollar General, but the company refused, claiming it wanted to leave the money for smaller businesses. Except the money was for workers, and Dollar General workers need the money just as much as workers at your local corner store. Yes, Dollar General should have paid that money itself to its own workers, but saying “we won’t pay you that $2,000 and we won’t let anyone else do it either” is grotesque.

Walmart, too, initially refused to apply for the money for its workers, citing the same “give it to small businesses” reason. Walmart, too, could damn well afford to pay its workers that money. Instead, full-time Walmart workers “have received a series of three cash payments of up to $300 each,” the Times reports.

“Imagine being told by your manager that corporate won’t fill out the paperwork that could get you $2,000,” said Tim Ashe, president of the Vermont Senate. Both Walmart and Dollar General say they will now apply for the program.

The U.S. has learned a little bit about how much we rely on low-paid workers in grocery stores and other retail outlets, finding them to be essential workers just like healthcare workers. Yet these workers are still brutally underpaid and underprotected in the pandemic. Then again, so are many healthcare workers. And employers have made it clear: They will not give workers fair wages of their own accord. The only way for workers to get what they deserve is to build power and make demands.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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