If Their Job Is Essential, They Deserve A Living Wage

If Their Job Is Essential, They Deserve A Living Wage

April 6, 2020 Updated April 9, 2020

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I keep telling myself the same thing through this shitstorm of a pandemic: I can still go outside, and I can still buy food to feed my family. These are the two biggest blessings, and having these freedoms are saving me right now.

I’m so thankful to go into the grocery store, see food on the shelves, bring it home, and cook for (and with) my three kids. I think in the midst of all this a lot of people — not all, but a lot — are forgetting those workers who are risking their own health, and the health of their loved ones, to get you food. A lot of them are scared they are going to get sick, which isn’t an emotion you should feel as you walk into work every damn day. 

There’s the guy at Wendy’s I’ve seen every day for the past few years who greets me when I go in for my Diet Coke. I talked to him yesterday as he handed back my credit card in a plastic bin. He was wearing gloves and told me they have been trying to keep up with the drive-thru demands. He doesn’t have a choice — he has to work if he wants to feed his family. He’s providing a service that not only feeds people, but brightens their day. I know my kids have been over the moon about going to get a Frosty once a week because it’s one of the few traditions we can maintain while socially distancing.

There’s the woman I was watching stock the shelves with toilet paper at the grocery store. As soon as she put a roll up, it was gone. She had to remind almost everyone to read the signs hanging on the shelves every six inches telling people they were only allowed to take one package per day. Not everyone was pleasant to her, and many of them felt perfectly entitled to invade her personal space as she stocked the shelves.

An employee wears gloves as riders descend from a Los Angeles Metro Rail train platform while wearing face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic
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The very reason you are able to eat is because of the people processing the food, driving the trucks, stocking the shelves, and standing in front of you taking your debit card and delivering your orders — while they hope they are protecting themselves enough that they won’t get sick.

Not only are they carrying on with their regular jobs, many of them are also going outside and delivering bags of food to people who are waiting in their cars. They are navigating a slammed online ordering system and low stock issues. They are trying to get people to maintain a clear six-foot distance while shopping. They are wiping down every service in their workplaces and trying to explain to elderly people why they don’t have any bread, pasta, or toilet paper. 

Do you think minimum wage is a fair rate to be paying these people who are literally risking their health to provide you this necessary and essential service? Everything else, besides the hospital, is closed. These folks are still working though because we need them, we depend on them. Would you take these risks for minimum wage? Would you want your child doing it for minimum wage? 

The federally-mandated minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour. If someone asked you to take a job that could expose you to a virus that could potentially kill you — for $7.25 an hour — you’d laugh. You’d feel that you were worth more than that, and you’d be right. 

And let’s not forget that minimum wage is not the same thing as a “living wage.” For most folks, earning minimum wage is not enough to pay their bills. The cost of living varies from state to state, but for most, minimum wage is the equivalent of living in poverty — which is why states like Seattle and New York have been working on instituting minimum wage requirements that allow workers to make an actual living wage.

While you can’t put a price on exposing yourself to COVID-19, the service workers deserve a fair, living wage for all they are doing to aid us in this crisis. They are the people keeping us fed right now. Think about that for a second.

Some retailers are leading the charge and doing the right thing by bumping up employee wages temporarily. After all, they are having a huge surge in sales.

As Womply reports, grocery stores have seen big increases. “Most states experienced a 30 to 60% increase in revenue, and only six states saw sales at grocery stores drop below 2019’s numbers,” Womply explains. “Five states (Arizona, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Montana, and Maryland) saw revenue during the week of Monday, March 23rd increase by over 100%.”

A San Antonio employee uses a disinfectant spray to mist a cross walk button
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Business Insider also reports a spike in grocery stores and fast-food chains, stating, “Foot traffic to warehouse chains was up nearly 39% between the week ending February 19 and the week ending March 13 across New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”

Retailers such as Walmart, Target, CVS, and BJ’s have reportedly bumped wages of employers by $2-$3 dollars an hour until the pandemic is over, while Starbucks is offering employees impacted by the coronavirus emergency catastrophe pay during this time. 

This is good news, but is it enough? Forbes reports that not only are essential workers who stock the shelves not getting enough protection or incentives like pay raises, hazard insurance, or even health benefits, but those who work in factories and farmhands are seeing zero protection and are walking off the job.

“It’s inevitable that more food workers will test positive and that means employers will have to think deeply about the risks their workers are facing with each additional shift — and compensate them accordingly as pressures to restock grocery shelves mount,” Forbes explains.

A raise in minimum wage is long overdue as it is, but during this pandemic it may be the only way to keep essential workers showing up to work. According to U.S. Census estimates, nearly 40 million people still live in poverty — this includes many of the minimum wage workers keeping America functioning right now.

We can only hope companies start to pay their vital, essential employees a decent living wage as we navigate these tough times, and that they — and everyone else — finally acknowledge how valuable their role in society is even after this pandemic is over.