Who would you say are the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis? Answers quickly lean to doctors and nurses, as well as county judges and other government leadership. But lately that honor has been extended to a group unlikely to receive that designation a few months ago: workers earning minimum wage.
Fast food restaurant workers, housekeeping staff, and grocery store clerks across the nation are now applauded. They are celebrated during news broadcasts and recipients of random acts of kindness.
Our country is turned upside down. Every week increasingly stringent restrictions on social interactions have been instated. And every day these workers, often underpaid and without access to healthcare, put their lives at risk as essential employees providing both conveniences and necessities for our communities.
While they share this designation with doctors and nurses, minimum wage workers often lack the same flexibility to miss a day of work without placing their households in economic peril. There is no paid leave. There is no grace. If they don’t work they don’t get paid.
Compounding this issue is the lack of access to employer-provided healthcare. Each customer interaction increases the likelihood of exposure for essential workers, especially in cases where proper PPE and protective measures have not been taken. These workers often earn much lower wages than their licensed medical counterparts and have limited access to employer-provided insurance coverage, leaving them in a perilous situation if they contract COVID-19 from one of their customers.
Advocates are joining the discussion and proposing the payment of a substantial monetary benefit for the family of any essential worker that passes from COVID-19 and the creation of a new Medicare plan specific for essential workers and their immediate families to provide healthcare to respond to COVID-19 exposure. Senate Democrats have also called for a COVID-19 Heroes Fund to support a higher minimum hourly pay. While it does not exclude non-medical workers, there is no language that explicitly includes them.
Workers have also begun to advocate for improved conditions, demanding more protective measures, increased pay, and overall protections from the dangers that come with fulfilling their new role of “hero.” These efforts have resulted in workers speaking out on social media and employee walkouts.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, has called on the US Department of Agriculture for changes, specifically an increase in wages and the implementation of more safety precautions for food supply chain workers after almost 50 of their members passed from COVID-19 and hundreds more reported being impacted by virus.
Last July Congress had the opportunity to pass a $15 minimum wage bill but it failed in the Senate. This increase in income could have provided much-needed economic cushion for these workers. It could have meant the ability to save an emergency fund, to pay for healthcare, to stay at home when not well, or more urgently, the ability to purchase a COVID-19 testing kit.
Increasing the minimum wage and incorporating proper protections are about dignifying the effort of all workers, regardless of income bracket or educational attainment.
To be sure, these changes won’t solve all the issues we are facing now. But a living wage and proper protective equipment are crucial to providing relief to vulnerable families that are reeling from this crisis.
COVID-19 has provided a much-needed wake-up call for us to see every job and every person as worthy of receiving an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. This is our second chance; our do-over. Let’s get it right this time. Our heroes and essential workers deserve that much from us. Every single one of them.