When Essential Workers Earn Less Than The Jobless: 'We Put The Country On Our Back'

Jul 1, 2020
Originally published on July 9, 2020 6:58 am

A strange thing happened this spring.

As co-workers began to get sick, essential worker Yudelka LaVigna took an unpaid leave of absence. When she got her unemployment benefits, she realized something unheard of: She was making more money not working.

"That just kind of opens your eyes," says LaVigna, who's now back at her New York call center job for essential services.

When the government shut down the U.S. economy in a bid to tame the spread of the coronavirus, Congress scrambled to help tens of millions of people who lost jobs. The government rushed one-time relief checks to all families that qualified and tacked an extra $600 onto weekly unemployment benefits, which are usually less than regular pay and vary by state.

But so far, lawmakers have not passed any measure to increase pay for workers who were asked to keep going to work during a highly contagious health crisis. Some companies did create hazard, or "hero," pay — typically around $2 extra an hour or a one-time bonus. Most have since ended it.

So those boosted unemployment checks have created a bizarre distortion in the labor market, where holding on to a job doesn't guarantee being financially better off than losing one.

LaVigna says it's a weird imbalance. "You feel like, you guys [the government] never have money for people that really need it, and all of a sudden you have money for everybody," she says. "But then the people that are still essentially working don't get the recognition that they deserve."

Few employers have compensated extra for on-site work amid the health crisis. A recent survey by the Economic Policy Institute found that fewer than a third of people who had to leave their homes to work during the pandemic received additional pay or benefits. As U.S. coronavirus cases persist and some states are even backtracking their reopening plans, workers have flooded social media with calls for hazard pay.

The Facebook group "Give Essential Workers Essential Pay" drew nearly 4,000 members in a matter of weeks: cashiers and bus drivers, pharmacy technicians and sanitation workers, welders and machinists. They post pictures of the thank-you gifts their companies have sent them: hats, bracelets, T-shirts and gift cards.

"We got videos from our employer saying thank you. We got musicians from the Grammys, or whatever, saying thank you. ... If we're so thanked and so important, why don't they write a bill for us?" says Nick Stone, an essential worker at a Nevada plant that supplies rock and other material for roadway, housing and other construction projects.

"Think about the coal miners that go underground and risk their lives, and why their wages are increased compared to a surface miner," says Stone, a longtime miner. "This pandemic was the same thing. We [essential workers] let everybody stay at home, and we put the country on our back to carry it. ... But we didn't choose to do this. This was asked of us."

Many social media conversations about hazard pay inevitably bring up the extra $600 weekly in unemployment benefits that workers wish they received too. It's a stark reminder of just how much of a difference that money can make to millions of working families.

Studies have begun to show that the additional pandemic aid threw a critical lifeline to low-income households, keeping many from poverty. It was easier to access compared with the typically onerous bureaucracy of U.S. safety-net programs. And experts who study poverty say that this money did a better job approximating a living wage than many minimum-wage jobs do.

"All of a sudden when we actually want to help people, we think that $600 a week is the kind of amount that seems reasonable," says Liz Ananat, an economics professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. "I was honestly astonished by $600 a week, because it was so generous compared to what I'm used to looking at."

But the short-lived pandemic boost ends at the end of July. Ananat's research also suggests that roughly half of those who've lost work are still waiting for their unemployment checks. Many have no savings to fall back on.

Essential workers understand that the situation is messy.

"I'm not angry at anyone receiving that [unemployment]. I can't be angry, because you have to still feed your family," says Sandra Ellington, a custodial worker at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Ohio.

Custodial worker Sandra Ellington is a member of the Service Employees International Union.
Jennifer Latin / Sandra Ellington

Ellington knows the importance of her work — and she says she has found a way to commute to work and keep the airport clean as safely as possible.

But her life has changed. She's couponing more, because groceries have gotten more expensive. And it has been months since she has hugged her mom, who's 70 and used to come over for a cup of coffee on the porch a few times a week, but had to stop. Ellington has seen her from the car while dropping off supplies. They say "I love you" to each other from a distance.

"We've worked through it all. ... We've been there through the whole fight," Ellington says. "We did not get the option [to stay home]. And I'm not mad I didn't get that option. But I should be paid essential pay."

Medical secretary Lisa Cianci is a prominent voice of a Facebook group called "Give Essential Workers Essential Pay."
Lisa Cianci

Lisa Cianci, a medical secretary near Boston, has been working 12-hour overnight shifts at an emergency room. On a recent call, her dad suggested she take a vacation because she sounded stressed.

"I'm psychologically, mentally, emotionally — I'm like, spent," Cianci says. "And I feel like I'm not the same person."

She's hopeful that lawmakers will pass some kind of hazard pay for essential workers and finally come out and show that "We haven't forgotten you."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Months into the pandemic, many of America's essential workers are feeling worn out and left out. Lawmakers have yet to pass hazard pay for frontline jobs during the pandemic. And a lot of workers are now earning less than they would from unemployment benefits. NPR's Alina Selyukh explains.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: A strange thing happened this spring. As co-workers began to get sick, essential worker Yudelka LaVigna took an unpaid leave of absence. When she got her unemployment benefits, she realized something unheard of. She was making more money not working.

YUDELKA LAVIGNA: Oh, my God. I was like, can I just do this forever? Like, do I have to go back to work? (Laughter). It was a big relief, having those checks.

SELYUKH: Those checks were boosted with special pandemic pay that Congress rushed to pass. It added $600 a week to regular unemployment insurance, which is usually less than that and varies by state. LaVigna works at a New York call center for essential services. And back on the job, but with work still extra slow, her paycheck now feels discouragingly short.

LAVIGNA: There's a lot that's going on with this virus that just kind of opens your eyes to how it really is because you feels like, you guys never had money for people that really need it. And all of a sudden, you have money for everybody. But then the people that are still, you know, essentially working don't get the recognition that they deserve.

SELYUKH: Lawmakers in Congress have so far failed to pass measures that would increase pay for essential workers during the pandemic. Some companies did create hazard pay - or so-called hero pay - often around $2 extra an hour. And most have now stopped it. And so those boosted $600 unemployment checks have created a bizarre distortion in the labor market where holding onto a job, even working the front lines of a health crisis, doesn't guarantee being financially better off. It's a stark reminder of how much of a difference that kind of money can make to millions of working families.

LIZ ANANAT: So I was honestly astonished by $600 a week because it was so generous compared to what I'm used to looking at.

SELYUKH: Liz Ananat studies U.S. poverty as an economics professor at Barnard College. Research has begun to show that the pandemic aid brought a critical lifeline to low-income homes, keeping many from poverty. But Ananat's work also suggests roughly half of the unemployed are still waiting for that relief. And the pandemic boost ends this month. The essential workers I talked to know the situation is messy.

SANDRA ELLINGTON: I'm not angry at anyone receiving that. I can't be angry because you have to still feed your family.

SELYUKH: Sandra Ellington is a custodial worker at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Ohio. She says she's also not mad that she didn't get the option to stay home. She knows her job is important and has found a way to commute to work and keep the airport clean as safely as possible. But her life has changed. She's couponing more because groceries are more expensive. And she misses spending time with her mom, who's 70. She used to come over for a cup of coffee on the porch a few times a week but had to stop.

ELLINGTON: I've seen her from the car (laughter). I go to the store for her. We put her stuff on the steps. She's like, well, OK. I love you. I'm like, I love you, too. No hugging (laughter).

SELYUKH: Among people like Ellington who were asked to keep leaving their home to go to work during the pandemic, a new survey by the Economic Policy Institute found less than a third received any extra pay or benefits. As coronavirus cases persist, these workers have flooded social media with calls for premium pay.

LISA CIANCI: Seeing, you know, the people on unemployment that are getting basically what I'm taking home every two weeks.

SELYUKH: Lisa Cianci is a medical secretary near Boston who's been working 12-hour overnight shifts at an emergency room. She's a prominent voice of a Facebook group called Give Essential Workers Essential Pay. It drew almost 4,000 members in a matter of weeks - cashiers and bus drivers, paramedics and sanitation workers, welders and machinists. They post pictures of the thank-you gifts their companies sent them - hats, bracelets, T-shirts and gift cards. Cianci says her dad recently heard her sounding stressed on the phone and told her she should really take a vacation.

CIANCI: It's very frustrating. And I'm angry. I'm psychologically, mentally, emotionally - I'm, like, spent. And I feel like I'm not the same person.

SELYUKH: She's hopeful that lawmakers will pass some kind of hazard pay for essential workers. She says she wishes they'd finally come out and show, we haven't forgotten you.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.