Clarke: Nickels and dimes for workers’ rights

The pandemic evokes new safety practices, protections for hourly workers.

Sidney Clarke

Sidney Clarke

Sidney Clarke

For years, customer service has been a permanent fixture of my summertime whereabouts. Between road trips and bonfires, I’ve worked in coffee shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors and bakeries. I’ve found that most business protocols are relatively standardized, even across industries and state lines. Believe it or not, the same pair of plastic nonslip shoes have served me in almost every part-time job I’ve worked since 2016. However, this summer has been remarkably different. 

At the local coffee shop where I spend what feels like the majority of my waking hours, the pandemic is more present than ever. On the hour, a blaring alarm cues my coworkers to perform a deep clean of the store to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Effectively, the place constantly reeks of coffee grounds and bleach, but what’s most concerning about the new practices is that it took a global pandemic to enact them.

For example, take the simple policy that sick employees shouldn’t work. Previously, the question has been ‘Can you work?’ instead of ‘Should you work?’ New policies such as checking employees’ temperatures before shifts not only protects the safety of customers but also employees. In certain industries and under certain employers, workers are often coerced into prioritizing job security over personal health. 

In the United States, approximately 58.5% of workers older than 16 are paid an hourly rate, meaning illness doesn’t necessarily qualify for paid compensation. Between threats of financial repercussions and job security, workers have historically been discouraged from sick leave. Recently, though, it has become the workers’ responsibility to report abnormal symptoms and stay home. If this workplace ideology outlasts the current crisis, it will impact about 81.9 million American employees. 

Alternatively, the pandemic has brought a great many of those employees into harm’s way. Workers in food service, transit, medicine and grocery stores interact with hundreds of strangers every day and thousands a week. Unfortunately, sneeze barriers, hand sanitizer and masks are only conditionally effective. Try handing someone 98 cents in change without ever brushing fingertips some time. As a result, the new word in our mouths this month is ‘hazard pay.’ 

Companies such as Target and Amazon temporarily adopted hazard pay policies – a $2 hourly raise for front-line employees. Democratic senators proposed a $13 per hour minimum wage adjustment for essential workers, with compensation beginning in January when the pandemic was first labeled as a state of emergency. Republican senators similarly proposed a $12 per hour raise, but only for May, June and July. 

Although coronavirus is the primary concern today, the Mayo Clinic reports that monotonous work is related to other conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and substance abuse. Previously, most of these concerns haven’t been fully recognized or met with compensational funding. However, with essential employees in a temporary public spotlight, structural change for the benefit of long-term hourly workers may be truly accessible for the first time in decades. 

The last few months have been historic by every measure, and the constant issue of workers’ rights has been no exception. It may have taken a global emergency to push the needs of hourly workers to the front of our minds, but, with any luck, we can use this event to continue fighting for equitable compensation and the safest possible workplace conditions for those who offered us transportation, healthcare, groceries, hot coffee and shadows of consistency when they were scarce to be found.