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Frontline Workers Are Losing Temporary Wage Bumps Despite Increasing Risks


Hero pay, thank you pay, service pay - we are talking temporary pay bumps that some retailers and food companies have been giving their workers during the pandemic. Many are going away this month at a time when some workers feel their risks are only increasing. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: It's hard to say that extra $3 an hour for working in a pandemic made a dramatic difference in Sammy Conde's budget.

SAMMY CONDE: I kept buying more soup 'cause I eat a lot of soup (laughter). It helps me get, like, a little more groceries. It's really the big change.

SELYUKH: Conde is a barista at Starbucks in Orlando, an essential worker keeping locals caffeinated via drive-through windows and curbside pickup. Starbucks, like many corporations that asked employees to work during a health crisis, added lots of safety measures and perks, like new options for leave and health coverage and a big one - a temporary pay raise, $3 an hour. It bumped Conde's hourly wage to $13. That goes away this weekend.

CONDE: It feels like Starbucks could have been paying me this the whole time, and they're just choosing to do it now to help me feel better, but it's not really paying what I need.

SELYUKH: Conde's part of a worker advocacy group Fight for $15, an in dollars an hour. Alongside other labor activists, they argue raises like this at factories, warehouses, stores and restaurants should be permanent. That's partly why some companies like Walmart and CVS just paid onetime bonuses instead. This weekend, temporary pay bumps are ending at companies including Amazon and Molson Coors. They already ended at Rite Aid and Kroger. Target and Kraft Heinz told NPR they are extending their hazard pay a bit longer.

CHRSTINE SMITH: We're exposed to thousands of people because everybody, including those doctors and nurses, they all have to go to a grocery store to get their food.

SELYUKH: Christine Smith is a cashier at a Ralphs supermarket in California and a union shop steward with United Food & Commercial Workers. Smith says although parent company Kroger's hero pay is now gone, people who signed up to stock shelves and bag groceries are still dealing with new kinds of hazards.

SMITH: Last week, I think there were three days I just woke up crying 'cause I was just like, I can't do this anymore. I'm just exhausted, and people are being so - they're yelling at us, cussing at us because we won't do returns, because we're asking them to wear a mask.

SELYUKH: These altercations are cropping up across the country as store workers take on new roles as enforcers of social distancing and mask wearing. A few have turned violent, even deadly. Someone fired a gun at McDonald's workers in Oklahoma. A Family Dollar guard was shot and killed in Michigan. Some videos like this one are going viral.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, everyone. I work for Costco and I'm asking this member to put on a mask because that is our company policy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And I'm not doing it 'cause I woke up in a free country.

SELYUKH: The companies are in a tricky situation. Extra pay and benefits are very expensive. But a purely economic analysis of coronavirus risks that workers face suggests that at least by one estimate the pay bump should be 10 times bigger than a few bucks an hour. In a normal world, that might be the only way to stop workers from quitting en masse. But with tens of millions unemployed, workers have lost their leverage.

KATHARINE THOMAS: I want to stress how grateful I am because my company did not have to do that.

SELYUKH: Katharine Thomas is a cashier at a small food co-op in Wisconsin. She's getting hazard pay of $2 more. She remembers seeing people around her who lost jobs, getting not just unemployment but extra federal relief of $600 a week.

THOMAS: I felt very angry. I have to go to work, and I make less money being essential. Six hundred dollars a week - that's almost the whole paycheck for me.

SELYUKH: She wishes for all full-time work to pay a living wage and for the federal government to do more for the essential workers who kept showing up to work. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.