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Jose Gonzalez, grocery manager at Vons grocery store in Torrance, California, arranges products on shelves before doors open at 6 am for seniors and at-risk shoppers on April 27.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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Companies are giving essential workers bullshit rewards

Jeans before masks, cookies before sneeze guards: Corporate America is failing workers during the pandemic.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

As the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States took hold in March, Walgreens decided to let its workers wear jeans. It would be nearly two weeks before the pharmacy announced it was also giving them masks.

“The jeans thing I would say was within two weeks or so of getting locked down. The gloves and mask timing pissed me off, though. Everyone else had them, and it would take almost three weeks or so, before the company got them to us,” one New Jersey Walgreens worker told me. “We kept asking our manager when we would get them.”

Other associates were equally perplexed. While a relaxed dress code isn’t bad, it’s not going to protect you from a deadly virus. “The jeans thing has me rolling,” one worker remarked on a Reddit thread when the policy was implemented. “Our conspiracy theory at our store is that they’re letting us wear jeans to try to placate us instead of offering us hazard pay/bonus like every other company is doing,” another user replied. “Cuz who wants extra money over jeans days, right?” Walgreens did pay out a one-time bonus to workers for their services in March: $300 to full-time employees and $150 for part-timers. But given the risks and anxieties its employees are facing, such rewards seem deeply insufficient. And Walgreens is hardly unique. In recent weeks, I’ve spoken with multiple essential workers about the often awkward ways their employers are trying to reward and motivate them.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, millions of workers across the country have suddenly been deemed “essential.” And while commercials honor them and the public applauds them, there is a broader conversation brewing about how to fairly compensate and protect them, not just now, but always. There is federal guidance offering some guidelines for protecting essential workers, and there are some legislative proposals for protections and compensation. But by and large, companies are left to their own devices with regard to how they compensate and reward their workers during the pandemic, and some have resorted to some less-than-valuable tactics.

“Every job should be a safe job, no one should be risking their lives, and one of the biggest problems with trying to incentivize people to work in unsafe conditions is that it is inevitably condescending,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute.

A package of cookies from corporate isn’t a replacement for the sneeze guards you’ve been waiting on for weeks. Calling someone a hero is a sign of respect, but so is paying them like one, especially when they didn’t sign up to be one for $10 an hour and no health insurance.

A Walgreens spokesperson said in an email that the health and safety of its workers and employees is a “top priority” and noted the pharmacy chain has instituted safety measures such as enhanced cleaning, social distancing, and plexiglass shields during the Covid-19 outbreak. They said the company has followed governmental guidelines for retail businesses and in early April began providing face coverings in advance of CDC guidelines, which now require them. To be sure, jeans were never part of the CDC’s recommendations.

A colleague on a ventilator and a spirit-month calendar

In mid-March, McDonald’s workers at a store in Monterey Park near Los Angeles began agitating to management about protections. As Mona Holmes at Eater outlined, workers walked off the job multiple times, alleging management hadn’t taken their concerns seriously and demanding the store be thoroughly cleaned and employees paid during a two-week quarantine period.

In the midst of the drama, one of their colleagues fell ill. According to a Fight for $15 spokesperson, the colleague was hospitalized with Covid-19 and eventually wound up on a ventilator. (They have now recovered and been released.) Also in the midst of all the drama, workers say a calendar appeared in the store for the month of April. It laid out themed days, sort of like spirit week during high school: “Wacky Wednesday” for wearing your favorite sports jersey or crazy socks, “Sunday Funday” with bingo and trivia, and “#Freebie Friyay” with raffles. HuffPost first reported the calendar.

McDonald’s workers and their supporters protest for increased wages outside of a McDonald’s in Chicago, Illinois, on April 3, 2018. Workers have been protesting for better protections in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Instead of worrying about giving us what we need at work — because we didn’t at that time have gloves or hand sanitizer — they worried about a ridiculous calendar,” Angelica Hernandez, a worker at that McDonald’s for 15 years, told me in a phone interview.

“We felt offended, because primarily what we want for our store is to protect us, not offending us with this, putting these absurd things out,” said Laura Pozos, who has worked at the McDonald’s for four years.

Hernandez, 46, took part in two walkouts in March and April, and workers have achieved some of their demands: She said there are now sneeze guards in place, the store does temperature checks, and the break room has a two-person limit. “I think we’ve achieved something, but there’s more that we want to achieve,” she told me. Hernandez has three children and has sent them to live with her mother-in-law to keep them safe. She’s still worried about her recovering colleague. “It’s unjust for someone to be a life-long McDonald’s employee, and McDonald’s doesn’t do anything for their employees,” she said.

A new calendar has been put up for May.

McDonald’s said the calendar was created five years ago. Workers in the Monterey Park store insist that it is a new addition to their location.

A spokesperson for Fight for $15, an organizing group that fights for a $15 minimum wage and union rights for workers, relayed multiple stories of rewards companies such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell have given workers during the coronavirus crisis: a free hamburger for a worker or their kid, $20 worth of in-store food, one-time “thank you pay” of $100 or $200.

“While some of these other examples are not as egregious as the calendar, workers think these incentives are a slap in the face as their demands for sufficient PPE, paid sick days, and pandemic pay go unaddressed,” said Allynn Umel, organizing director for Fight for $15, in an emailed statement. “On top of that, in the middle of this crisis, while workers were begging for masks, McDonald’s dished out nearly $1 billion in dividends to its shareholders. It’s wrong to hand out cash to shareholders while workers struggle for health and economic protections.”

In an email, a McDonald’s spokesperson said its restaurant crew is the “heart and soul” of the company and its top priority, and it has “continued to enhance processes at our restaurants and adjust operations” during the coronavirus crisis. The spokesperson pointed to benefits to employees including five days earned paid time off per year, two weeks paid leave for those impacted by the coronavirus, and “nurse support” for people without health insurance. They added that the activism at Monterey Park is “not an accurate representation” of most of its restaurants.

A mask shouldn’t be a win

Many American institutions were slow to react to the coronavirus pandemic, including the government, the health care system, and the media. The same goes for corporate America. According to a recent survey from the Shift Project at the University of California Berkeley and UC San Francisco conducted from early March to early April, workers at major companies report that basic safety protections on the job are lacking. And while things have improved, the process has often been slow.

In mid-April, I spoke with Kristi, a Family Dollar worker in Georgia, who told me she felt like a “sacrificial lamb” and was “terrified” at work. She told me her store was supposed to get sneeze guards on April 2 but they hadn’t yet arrived, though corporate had managed to send cookies. “We’re looking at each other like, okay, thanks for the cookies, but that’s not really doing us any kind of service,” she told me.

Her pay had temporarily been bumped by $2 an hour, from $10.50 to $12.50. But she was worried about her hours being cut, which would effectively cancel that increase out. “I need my hours, I need every single minute you can possibly give me, and hours are being cut down because they’re trying to save money,” she said.

A spokesperson for Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, said in an email that the safety and health of its associates is a “top priority” and that 99 percent of its stores now have plexiglass guards. “We prioritized the areas affected most by the pandemic. There were not any major delays during this initiative,” the spokesperson said. When I checked in on Kristi in May, she told me the guards had finally arrived.

The problem with rewards like cookies, calendars, relaxed dress codes, or an extra dollar or two isn’t that they’re necessarily bad, it’s that if they’re not accompanied by real protections, transparency, and significant pay, they fall flat.

“Obviously, people want to see their employers show their recognition through words but definitely by action,” said Molly Kinder, a researcher focused on workforce equity at the Brookings Institution. “Nothing goes off the table because you did a luncheon.”

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that many low-paid jobs are instrumental to the engine of our economy. And even as the country is now acutely aware of how essential these workers are, it still can’t quite break the mold of how they’re treated. Many are still low-paid, many still lack benefits, and many are still left to fend for basic protections and respect.

Denise Allegretti and Margarette Nerette, organizers of the 1199SEIU United Health Care Workers East, represent more than 8,000 workers in nursing homes in Florida. They told me a handful of the employers they deal with have offered a small one-time bonus, and some have added on an extra $1 or $3 in hazard pay. “We think that’s baloney,” Nerette said. “People are putting their lives in danger, and this is how management says thank you to them?”

The pair described pleading with nursing home management for transparency and fielding calls from employees begging for protective equipment and afraid for their lives. The day I spoke with them, they’d just learned a worker in their unit had died of Covid-19. “It definitely has an impact on the rest of the workers, without question,” Allegretti said. She added, “We need employers to be transparent, they need to meet with the employees every day and give updates on what’s going on in the building. It’s pulling teeth to get them to have that happen everywhere.”

“Whether it’s a premium you pay, or you’re offering something as ridiculously shameful as wearing jeans to work or your favorite team jersey, you’re essentially saying to workers, ‘We would have to do X or Y to maximize your safety, but instead of doing that, we’re going to give you this little incentive,’ and they’re left between a rock and a hard place,” she said. Workers need the job and the pay, so they are left to make the calculation if it’s worth the risk.

Animosity is building up among many essential workers. Many make less on the job than they would on unemployment insurance, but they feel they’re trapped in their jobs because generally benefits don’t go to people who quit. Rewards and recognition can be a source of acrimony as well — in the health care system, there’s a lot of praise for doctors and nurses, but what about hospital cleaning staff or home health aides? And if these issues aren’t addressed now, the anger built up now will last.

“There’s going to need to be something after this is said and done to make peace with this, or else you’re going to have a very angry workforce,” one social worker in a Queens hospital told me.

Companies can and should do better by their employees, but it doesn’t mean they will. “It’s really important that companies are taking this time now to step back and really look at their whole benefits and ask, are we doing the right thing during the current situation? And they should have an eye toward what it will look like three months down the road or six months down the road,” said Jeff Cates, the CEO of Achievers, a company focused on employee benefits and rewards. McDonald’s is one of Achievers’ clients, but it focuses on online recognition. It does not work with the Monterey Park location, and the calendar was not tied to its consulting.

We don’t have to guess what workers want. We can ask them.

Worker power and unions have been in steady decline in recent decades, which is one reason so many essential workers are left to the whims of their employers. The government isn’t protecting them, and lawmakers from both parties have let them down, so they’re left to fend for themselves.

As Luke Winkie recently laid out for The Goods, some workers are using Reddit and Facebook to connect, swap stories, get information, and organize. While these communities existed before the pandemic, they’ve become a crucial tool for workers who find themselves under extreme levels of stress. Winkie points out that one Kroger worker in Arkansas didn’t know the company would be offering hazard pay until she found out on Facebook. (Hazard pay — or rather, “hero pay” — that is set to expire on May 17.)

These less-than-stellar rewards come up often in these groups. One UPS worker shared a meme about ignored hazard pay demands, where a corporation asks, “What do you want? How about a light show and applause? How about we call you heroes?” A CVS worker shared a meme about jeans day. (It seems to be a trend.)

Deciphering what is and isn’t a valuable way to reward workers isn’t an exact science. After all, what’s an appropriate amount for risking your and your family’s health during a pandemic? An extra $3 an hour? How about an extra $30? What size bonus? And some individuals may perceive benefits differently. In one essential worker Facebook group I’m in, a worker talked about her company starting a $250 drawing for people who complete all their shifts each week, remarking that “being a workaholic” sometimes pays off and expressing her excitement about her luck. Another worker in the group was not impressed: “A thanks for risking you and your families [sic] well being lottery? Cute but kind of insulting really lol.”

While it’s a complex issue, it’s not impossible to at least try to tackle. Right now, more workers are speaking out about their asks — Fight for $15, for example, has put out a list of Covid-19-related demands, and employee activism at places such as Amazon, Instacart, and Trader Joe’s is on the rise.

“Workers in these positions know what they need, and we should listen to them,” McNicholas said, emphasizing the importance of worker power and, where possible, unions. “It’s even more critical that workers have the ability to trigger those wins for themselves on the job.”

It’s also worth noting that the way these workers are treated, and how they are and aren’t compensated, stretches far beyond the pandemic.

“What our broader research shows is that stable hours, efficient hours, meaningful pay, these things really matter for people’s health and well-being and the well-being of their kids,” said Danny Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Berkeley. “The amount of hazard pay and bonuses that they are talking about, it doesn’t change these fundamentals of job quality, and those things are more important now.”


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