Why Essential Workers Are Not Paid More After Their Jobs Got Risky

May 22, 2020
Originally published on May 22, 2020 7:01 pm
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Many essential workers are making as much money now as they were before the pandemic, before their jobs got risky. But higher-risk jobs are supposed to pay more, so why isn't it happening? Here's Sarah Gonzalez with NPR's Planet Money podcast.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Yesenia Ortiz works at a grocery store called Compare Foods in Greensboro, N.C.

What do you have under your mask? Do you have another mask under your mask?

YESENIA ORTIZ: No, I have, like, a tissue because I don't want to ruin my mask under the lipstick.

GONZALEZ: You're still wearing lipstick underneath there?

ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah. You know Latina girls.

GONZALEZ: Latina girls (laughter).

Ortiz works in the back of the store. She unloads the trucks and restocks the shelves.

ORTIZ: Well, I'm refilling, but I'm also cleaning the shelves. This is what I do every day.

FATIMA PAVON: Hey. How are you?

GONZALEZ: Her co-worker Fatima Pavon is ringing up customers.

PAVON: It's going to be $17.78.

GONZALEZ: Do you mind me asking how much you get paid?

PAVON: I get paid $9.20.

GONZALEZ: Nine dollars twenty cents an hour?

PAVON: Yes.

GONZALEZ: So what is, like, a weekly paycheck? How much does it end up being?

PAVON: About - I want to say $300. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Three hundred dollars a week, no health insurance and, for now, no hazard pay, no things like hero bonuses - which some grocery stores have done - no extra $1 or $2 an hour.

No one has said anything? Like, no one has said, like, can you get us a freakin' raise?

PAVON: No one has said anything, and I have been tempted to be that first person (laughter) being like, you know, like, other places are getting a raise; I think we should, too, you know. But...

GONZALEZ: Grocery store workers like Pavon and Ortiz are now exposed to a level of risk that they did not sign up for or agree to when they took these jobs years ago. And Arindrajit Dube, a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that in a normal labor market, a good labor market, their wages would go up on their own once their jobs got riskier.

ARINDRAJIT DUBE: So in normal times, if a job suddenly becomes more dangerous, you're just not going to have as many workers willing to take that job unless it pays more to compensate for the higher risk.

GONZALEZ: Higher-risk jobs pay more. They compensate for the risk. But this only really happens on its own in a competitive labor market, when workers have options and employers are competing for workers.

DUBE: However, if the labor market is really anemic, where there's very few employers who are actually hiring - which is the case right now - that mechanism really breaks down.

GONZALEZ: No one is competing with the bosses for labor, so the employers - the bosses - they have the wage-setting power, not the workers, which means wages are just not likely to go up right now.

Because Fatima's boss is like, what else are you going to do?

DUBE: Fatima's boss is relatively less worried about Fatima getting another option in the current labor market than in a labor market three months ago.

GONZALEZ: Dube says all of this just makes it a really bad time to ask for a raise. But the other day, Fatima Pavon got close to almost asking.

PAVON: Yeah, I actually wanted to just kind of talk to him and be like - like, how would he feel about it (laughter).

GONZALEZ: What stops you from doing it?

PAVON: I'm scared (laughter) because...

GONZALEZ: It is so hard to ask for a raise.

Democrats in the House and Senate have proposed giving essential workers extra money for the risk they face, tucking $200 billion in hazard pay into the so-called HEROES Act. But it hasn't passed. And for Fatima Pavon still hasn't asked for her raise.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, Greensboro.

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