“America’s essential workers are facing a holiday season of unparalleled danger.”
As the nation’s busiest shopping day approaches, the economic pain endured by millions of low-income and unemployed Americans is growing.
More than 778,000 people filed new applications for state unemployment benefits last week, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced Wednesday, marking the second weekly increase in a row. Another 312,000 people filed for benefits under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides benefits for contractors, self-employed individuals, and others who don’t qualify for state payments.
In total, more than 20 million people were claiming some form of unemployment benefits on Nov. 7, the most recent week available for that statistic, according to the DOL.
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Meanwhile, many of those fortunate enough to have jobs are not only risking their health by going to work, but doing so without strong safety protections and in exchange for low wages. Ahead of Black Friday, workers at Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, and other large retailers are demanding their employers provide hazard pay and improve safety protocols ahead of the holiday shopping season as coronavirus cases surge across the country.
The plight of America’s jobless and underpaid workers could get worse, too. Many of the federal unemployment programs passed to provide relief during the pandemic expire at the end of December, and unless Congress passes another relief bill, an estimated 12 million people will be deprived of their income just as the pandemic reaches its most dangerous phase yet.
The US has recorded 2 million new coronavirus cases in the past two weeks, hospitalizations and deaths are rising, and public health experts have warned that the millions of Americans traveling and gathering together for Thanksgiving could seed the virus and lead to an even worse surge. This could prompt even more public safety restrictions, forcing businesses to shut down and leading to a wave of new job losses.
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The surge in cases has alarmed retail workers and their representatives, who worry about what it means for their health.
“America’s essential workers are facing a holiday season of unparalleled danger,” United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) President Marc Perrone said during a call with reporters this week. “With more than 1 million new COVID-19 cases in the past week, and deaths spiking to unprecedented levels, we are entering what could be the deadliest phase of this pandemic for millions of America’s essential front-line workers.”
The UFCW and other workers’ rights groups say that this danger merits additional pay. Many companies offered workers hazard pay during the early weeks and months of the pandemic, often an extra $2 per hour, but have since discontinued the practice, even as they’ve racked up record profits.
The Brookings Institute, a left-leaning think tank, released a report this week analyzing the profits of 13 of the nation’s 20 largest companies, including Amazon, Walmart, and Kroger. The report found that profits surged by a combined $16.9 billion (39%) this year, while stock prices are up by an average of 33%. In contrast, the average pay for front-line workers is up only $1.11 an hour (10%), since the pandemic began.
“You’re making billions and billions of dollars, so spread the wealth,” Jeffrey Reid, a meat clerk at Giant Foods outside Washington, DC, told Brookings last month. “Spread it to the people who are responsible for you making the billions of dollars, for the people who [are] rolling up their sleeves every day, making sure that these companies are running. That’s where you need to put the money.”
Reid and his fellow retail workers are likely to be inundated with customers in the coming days and weeks as Americans stock up for the holiday season. That surge in spending could provide a short-term economic boost, but unless corporations and lawmakers step up, the economy could plunge off a cliff in the new year as cases explode, pay remains stagnant, and unemployment benefits expire.