COVID-19: Mitigating Worker and Consumer Risk

As the country slowly regains its economic footing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, consumers, employees, and their employers are working to develop the ‘new normal’ for essential and re-opened businesses. As part of this process, labor groups, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, are pushing to make temporary pay increases permanent for workers. But small pay rises are false economy in the face of an ongoing, serious health threat. Unions need to retire their same old playbook and focus on protecting both workers and consumers.

Throughout the pandemic, countless companies have offered temporary pay rises for essential workers. Some have offered to compensate essential workers a $2/hour ‘hero pay’ bonus in April, including a one-off $300 bonuses for full-time staff and $150 for part-time staff in April. As the lockdowns were slowly lifted, however, the temporary pay was discontinued and capped rounds of “Thank You Pay” bonuses, including a $200 for part-time workers and $400 for full-time workers, paid over the first weeks of June.

But the return to normal wages has drawn the ire of labor groups, and the leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Marc Perrone saying these companies should keep the bonus because “they can afford it.”  Perrone’s sentiment to continue hazard pay targets a number of companies, including every grocery store worker in America until COVID-19 ceases to be a threat. That may be another year.

But the union’s usual playbook of demanding higher wages is out of touch with reality, and risks putting workers and consumers at risk.

Negotiations between employers and workers will unfortunately entail compromises for both sides. The union’s leaders are no doubt well aware of this.

At a time when millions of Americans were out of work, these grocery workers face a huge disincentive to walk away from their current job and collect unemployment compensation.

Investing in better protective practices would also bear tangible benefits for consumers. Just like grocery store workers, consumers are equally concerned about transmitting or catching the virus in unavoidable circumstances. Investing in protective equipment, increased store cleaning, extended operating hours for high-risk groups, and curbside pick-up would help to protect both workers and consumers—including consumers who are currently out of work and not eligible for any form of hero pay.

While the nation’s economic conditions slowly improve, it is up to businesses, workers, and consumers to hash out how they will move forward under the spectre of an enduring coronavirus risk. The first priority should be mitigating that risk, particularly for workers and consumers who have little choice but to continue visiting shared spaces. Negotiations inherently entail trade-offs, but maintaining pay bonuses should not be prioritized over protecting the lives of workers and consumers.

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