For more than a year, the Covid-19 pandemic changed how America worked.
Grocery store cashiers, line cooks, janitors, and millions of others — about a third of the American workforce — saw their jobs become dangerous overnight, as they were asked to keep coming to work in person in spite of the viral threat. Meanwhile, millions more transitioned from going to an office to working from their homes — the percentage of workers logging on remotely rose from 17 percent to 44 percent once the pandemic began. And workers in both groups had to figure out how to take care of their kids when schools and day cares across the country closed their doors.
Among employers and in the culture at large, there was at least some minimal acknowledgment that work had become harder than anyone had bargained for. Some bosses, especially in white-collar industries, became more understanding of child care responsibilities, granting employees the flexibility to do their work outside a traditional nine-to-five — even if they didn’t necessarily reduce the overall workload. Meanwhile, grocery store chains and other companies began offering hazard pay and other bonuses. It wasn’t enough for what many workers were going through, but it was something.
Now, with vaccinations on the rise and summer approaching, a lot of employers are going back to business as usual.
Restaurant and other service industry employers are saying they can’t find workers, and some are blaming expanded unemployment benefits — even as many businesses continue to offer wages that feel stuck in 2019 and safety remains uncertain in an ongoing pandemic. Indeed, a relaxation of mask mandates has brought new potential risks, with service workers now having to contend with more maskless customers. Restaurant workers “have concerns because it is not easy to know who has been vaccinated,” Sekou Siby, president and CEO of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), which works on behalf of low-wage restaurant workers, told Vox.
Meanwhile, some large employers are ready to get rid of the flexibility of the pandemic in order to bring all their employees back to the office. “The commute, you know, yes, people don’t like commuting, but so what,” JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon said at a May conference.
Hazard pay is long gone, and grocery store workers in some places are fighting for even the smallest wage increases. “We were there through the whole pandemic,” Heidy Lopez, a cashier at a Food 4 Less grocery store in the Los Angeles area, told Vox. But now, “you feel like this company doesn’t care.”
Many have hailed the pandemic as an opportunity for a great reset — a chance to “build back better,” in President Biden’s words. But that can’t happen, labor advocates say, until bosses and policymakers create lasting changes in wages and working conditions, beyond a few weeks of hazard pay or some applause at 7 pm. “Employers really need to see workers as a key part of their business, not just a widget they can plug in and use,” Rakeen Mabud, managing director of policy and research and chief economist at the Groundwork Collaborative, told Vox.
The last year transformed work in terrifying ways
The last year has been a harrowing one for many American workers. Even before Covid-19 hit, millions of workers had been dealing with years of stagnant wages and absent or inadequate benefits, as CEOs and shareholders got rich. The ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation was 320 to 1 in 2019, up from 293 to 1 in 2018 and just 21 to 1 in 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute. “The squeeze that workers have felt for many years, really since the 1970s, has only amplified during the pandemic,” Mabud said.
When the pandemic hit, workers were forced to take on health risks many of them never thought they’d face on the job. And many say their employers were slow to protect them. Last spring, Food 4 Less workers had to bring their own PPE because the store didn’t provide it, Lopez said. “The company was like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. It’s not a pandemic.’”
But Lopez could clearly see the frightening reality of the situation. “As a cashier who was looking at all of my co-workers getting sick, it was scary,” she said — especially because she lives with her 8-year-old nephew and family members who are prone to lung problems. She called her doctor several times last year, not because of Covid-19 symptoms but because of anxiety: “The stress was physically hurting me.”
Some large companies, like Amazon, Walmart, and Target, did begin offering hazard pay for front-line workers last spring. Kroger, the parent company of Food 4 Less, gave employees a $2 per hour “hero bonus.” But that bonus expired last May, with Covid-19 cases rising in many areas. And when Los Angeles mandated an additional $5 per hour in hazard pay for many grocery store workers earlier this year, Kroger shut down three stores in the area. “It becomes impossible to operate these three stores” with the mandate, the company said in a statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
It wasn’t just Kroger rolling back hazard pay. Thirty-eight of the 300 largest companies in America announced some form of hazard bonus last spring, according to the watchdog group Just Capital. But by last August, half of those policies had expired.
Now, Food 4 Less workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union are negotiating a new contract, but management is offering a wage increase of just 50 cents an hour to 38 percent of its workers — and no increase to the rest. “Kroger’s offer is a win for Food 4 Less’ 7,000 associates: a competitive wage increase and a strong health care and benefits package,” Bryan Kaltenbach, president of Food 4 Less, said in a press release provided in response to Vox’s request for comment.
And while Covid-19 rates are declining across the country, the pandemic is far from over. In fact, it could be entering a more complicated phase for service workers, with states dropping mask mandates and the CDC issuing guidance that vaccinated people can be indoors without masks. Since there’s no way to tell if someone is vaccinated just by looking at them (and few establishments are going so far as to check vaccination cards), grocery store and other front-line workers have been thrust into a confusing environment in which it’s not clear who could be spreading the virus.
Lopez has been vaccinated, but customers’ behavior at times still has her concerned. “I get people who lick their fingers and give me money,” she said.
Restaurants laid off workers. Now they want them back.
It’s not just grocery stores. Restaurant workers have shouldered some of the highest risks during the pandemic, with line cooks facing the highest risk of Covid-19 mortality of any occupation, according to one study. The industry has also been hit hard by layoffs, with 5.9 million restaurant workers losing their jobs between March and May of last year.
Now business is picking back up with rising vaccination rates and warmer weather, and restaurants are looking to hire again, but many say they can’t find workers. Some are blaming the expanded unemployment insurance in the American Rescue Plan. “You have some cases where it’s more profitable to not work than to work, and you can’t really fault people for wanting to hold on to that as long as possible,” chef Jeremy Fox told the New York Times.
But others say if employers want workers to come back, there’s a simple solution. “Employers post their too-low wages, can’t find workers to fill jobs at that pay level, and claim they’re facing a labor shortage,” Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a recent op-ed. “I often suggest that whenever anyone says, ‘I can’t find the workers I need,’ she should really add, ‘at the wages I want to pay.’”
Indeed, “it is too easy to blame the workers, instead of those who have been making tons of money but who didn’t think it was important to raise wages,” Siby of ROC United said. Restaurant owners benefited from corporate tax cuts passed in 2017 under President Trump, but never passed those savings on to workers, Siby said. Moreover, ROC United pushed earlier in the pandemic for restaurants to adopt right-to-return policies after layoffs, giving laid-off workers first priority when those businesses were hiring again.
“But nobody wanted to listen,” Siby said. “All of a sudden now they need those workers who were left unprotected.”
Some restaurant owners counter that with their low profit margins, they can’t afford to raise wages. But the whole debate feels somehow anachronistic, with employers trying to get workers to accept the same pay they were getting before the pandemic, or only a slight increase, as though the last year didn’t change everything about their jobs.
Restaurant profit margins have always been low, Siby said, yet restaurants survived when New York City instituted a $15 minimum wage in 2019. Now, ROC United is fighting for a true living wage — in some places closer to $24 per hour — as well as an end to the tipped minimum wage, which allows restaurants to pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 an hour. The latter is especially problematic during the pandemic with fewer customers coming to restaurants, meaning fewer tips in servers’ and bartenders’ pockets.
And if restaurants don’t raise wages, Siby believes workers will eventually shift to retail jobs, where pay is often better. “If you’re still paying people less than $15, the law of the labor market is pretty clear,” he said. “They will go to where the offer is higher.”
Corporate employers are pushing a return to the office
While essential workers risked their lives on the job, millions of others were able to work from the relative safety of their homes this year. Working remotely during a pandemic was far from ideal for many, exacerbating a degradation of the boundaries between job and personal life that had already become a hallmark of late capitalism. “Work is our lover,” Vox’s Constance Grady wrote in March. “And this year, we took it to bed.”
However, for some, remote work during the pandemic brought greater flexibility. People moved to be closer to family members. They started hobbies or exercise routines with the time they saved from commuting. For those with young children or other care responsibilities, remote work was the difference between being able to keep working — difficult as it was to balance work and care — and having to quit a job.
In other words, the pandemic may have brought some workplaces closer to what Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the future of work, calls a “work from anywhere” ideology — one in which workers are no longer constrained to an office or even a particular city, but can live and work for most of the year from a location of their choice.
Such a setup is actually far more inclusive than an office model, Choudhury told Vox, especially for working parents who can choose to live in smaller cities with cheaper day care, or near family who can help with child care. “It takes a village to raise a child, so you can go closer to that village,” Choudhury said.
But now, some companies are trying to turn back the clock on remote work. It’s not just JPMorgan, where Dimon said that “sometime in September, October it will look just like it did before.” Goldman Sachs will also ask a majority of its US and UK workers to come back to the office in June. Retail giant Saks, meanwhile, wants its New York City offices to be the “default” for employees come September, with CEO Mark Metrick calling Zoom “a culture killer for companies” and comparing its rise to “when cigarettes went mainstream,” according to the Times.
But an attachment to in-office work could actually end up hurting companies. CEOs should be thinking “if I try to push my organization back to 2019 and that all-cubicle model,” Choudhury said, “the risk is I’m going to lose my best employees.”
For workers, meanwhile, a premature return to pre-pandemic conditions can be anywhere from frustrating to outright dangerous. People who are immunocompromised, for example, may not be protected from Covid-19 even if vaccinated. And pockets of vaccine hesitancy could cause further outbreaks around the country this summer and beyond.
But something else has changed since 2019, beyond the conditions of work in America. “Workers have leverage in this moment,” Mabud said. The pandemic has drawn attention to the inequities of low-wage work, and a boost to the social safety net has allowed people to prioritize their health and safety, sometimes for the first time.
“Workers are saying, ‘I’m not willing to take on a job that has terrible pay and requires me to take on customers who don’t want to wear masks,’” Mabud said. “This is a moment for employers to create the workplaces that people want to work in.”
For Lopez, that workplace would be one where she’s respected and treated fairly. “I want to be an essential worker,” she said. “It feels really good to be able to do everything that you can in order to help. But you have to be realistic of what I need also.”