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‘We went from being essential to being sacrificial, all for the sake of the bottom line’

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How much rage have you got left after four years of Donald Trump and nine months of coronavirus pandemic? Please set aside some to direct at the United States’ largest retail companies for their treatment of their workers.

A Brookings Institution report shows how 13 of the nation’s 20 largest retail chains, with a combined six million employees, have stiffed their workers through the pandemic. Well, 10 of the 13 did. Three—Target, Home Depot, and Best Buy—were comparatively generous, with bigger pay increases to workers than other companies and relative to their own profit increases in the time of COVID-19. But 10 companies in the analysis—Walmart, Amazon*, Kroger, Costco*, Walgreens, CVS, Lowe’s, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize (the Dutch-Belgian grocery company that owns Giant), and Dollar General—have not boosted worker pay as much as their profits have risen. 

The extra amount the average worker at these companies has been paid through the pandemic ranges from $4,414 at Best Buy, a 28% increase, down to just $300, or just 2%, at Walgreens and CVS. For many of the companies, hazard pay of $2 an hour early on has been yanked from workers, in some cases replaced by sporadic bonuses—because bonuses feel like a gift, whereas hourly pay becomes harder to take away after a while. 

“The end of hazard pay also undermined racial, ethnic, and gender equity,” the Brookings report, authored by Molly Kinder, Laura Stateler, and Julia Du, notes. “Women and workers of color are overrepresented among the retail frontline workforce. Women make up a significantly larger share of the frontline workforce in general retail stores and at companies such as Target and Walmart than they do in the workforce overall. Amazon and Walmart employ well above-average shares of Black workers (27% and 21%, respectively) compared to the national figure of 12%.”

Meanwhile, of these companies, only Walgreens became less profitable. Others saw profits soar—Amazon’s by 53%, Walmart’s by 45%, Kroger by 90%, Dollar General by 77%. They just didn’t pass that along to the workers who made it possible. Instead, five of them—Walmart, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Lowe’s, and Dollar General—poured hundreds of millions of dollars into stock buybacks.

”All of a sudden, we went from being essential to being sacrificial, all for the sake of the bottom line. Now you’re telling us that this thing is still out here, people are still dying, and you want to do away with hazard pay and give a one-time bonus? It’s a bunch of B.S., to be honest. It is still a pandemic, the last time I checked. There is a still a hazard out there,” Giant Food worker Jeffrey Reid told Brookings.

Just as workers went uncompensated for the risks they took, in many cases they were actively put at risk in ways higher-paid workers in the same companies were not. Amazon brags about its on-site testing and other safety measures, but workers aren’t so sure.

“The fact that [Amazon executives] decided to close the Seattle building [and allow headquarters staff to work remotely] until next year while keeping thousands of us jam-packed in a small warehouse is more than a little upsetting,” Amazon Fresh warehouse worker Courtenay Brown told reporters on a call.

The bottom line is this, according to the report: “Amazon and Walmart could have quadrupled the hazard pay they gave their frontline workers and still earned more profit than the previous year.” They didn’t.

* Costco and Amazon did have $15 per hour minimum pay prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 25, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

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


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