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The Workers Who Help Feed America in Quarantine Should Get Hazard Pay

The work that these laborers are doing is vital, and needs to be acknowledged as such

Man works at a cash register in a supermarket checkout line. Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As much of public life comes to a standstill, with people across the country preparing to isolate themselves at home indefinitely, there are some who have no choice but to continue venturing out into a world upended by the threat of COVID-19: the workers who are keeping America fed.

Grocery workers, agricultural producers, truck drivers who keep the supply chains moving, the cooks and delivery people upon whom the ill and the confined rely on to eat — they, along with healthcare professionals, first responders, sanitation employees, and others whose labor is essential to a functioning (or barely functioning) society, are what’s allowing so many office workers and vulnerable individuals to stay home during this pandemic. In doing so, these laborers are knowingly braving the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus because, frankly, so many of them have no choice.

Service jobs, especially the kind that face elevated COVID-19 risk because of contact with the general public, are not known for high compensation (the hourly mean wage for cashiers at food and beverage stores was $11.43 in May 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) or robust health coverage, if any. But for many, the reality of not being able to pay bills is as or even more dire as the threat of contracting COVID-19. “It’s an awful decision: Go to work and put your life at risk, or lose your job, lose your income, and lose your insurance,” a 67-year-old grocery store worker told Vox’s Luke Winkie.

What these workers need is hazard pay, defined by the Department of Labor as “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship,” with “physical hardship” including “extreme physical discomfort and distress … not adequately alleviated by protective devices.” Given the current situation — in which thousands have died around the world, there is not yet a vaccine, and protective gear like face masks and hand sanitizer are in short supply — it’s impossible to conceive of duties like jostling against hordes of panic shoppers as anything but intensely physical and hazardous.

The work that these laborers are doing is vital, and should be acknowledged as such, not just abstractly, but materially. The states of Minnesota and Vermont have officially classified grocery store clerks as emergency workers, which provides them with free childcare. Similar ideas have been increasingly voiced on social media, in letters to the editor, and by writers like Alissa Quart, who in an article for Slate calls gig economy workers “the equivalent of first responders.” She writes: “These workers are putting themselves in harm’s way, even if they are not doing so in the more recognizably brave fashion of, say, an EMT at a disaster site.”

Workers have also begun calling for hazard pay. A coalition of workers who are in the process of unionizing Trader Joe’s — locations of which have been routinely overwhelmed by shoppers amid the outbreak — launched an online petition to demand hazard pay at the rate of time and a half, in addition to guaranteed pay in the event of forced store closures. “We are still coming in, even though our communities are closing down. We are still breaking down pallets and restocking shelves and making sure our neighbors can comfortably quarantine, even though we ourselves cannot,” the union tweeted. A day after the petition began circulating online, Trader Joe’s sent an internal company memo announcing the creation of a “special bonus pool” for store employees based on recent sales increases, Business Insider reports.

As Quart writes, the COVID-19 crisis has put into stark relief the “harsh social class divide” that governs this country. The wealthy, the fortunate, the ever slightly more privileged — in addition to those older or vulnerable individuals who are at high risk of serious illness from the virus — are able to, for the most part, shut themselves away, spending their newfound surplus of “me” time planning what to bake or stream, while outsourcing risk to the workers whose labor undergirds everyone else’s daily survival and comfort. The least that we — as a collective with the power to pressure corporations and lawmakers — could do is pay those workers well for all that they’re doing. And while we’re at it, add paid sick leave and the hand sanitizer that price gougers are hoarding to the list, too.

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