Hunts Point and Hazard Pay
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The virus mandated lockdown and isolation for New Yorkers who could subsist on virtual meetings and intermittent grocery outings. The slightest reference to the subway became a household ick. However, the essential workers who kept grocery aisles stocked and the city fed continued to work, risking exposure to the virus. Though most industries in the U.S. workforce slowed down and 75 million citizens filed for unemployment, essential businesses across the country had to expedite their operations to meet demand—nurses and doctors took on more patients, delivery drivers had twice as many orders to account for, and MTA employees had to keep the trains running at a pre-pandemic pace.
New Yorkers showed appreciation for local essential workers with evening applause from window sills and balconies. Yet amidst unprecedented risks and workloads, the federal government and corporate executives failed to recompense these workers with hazard or “hero” pay for their work. In fact, just 25 percent of companies that rely on in-person workers gave any pay increases to their employees who worked through the pandemic. Lawmakers also have not passed any measures to provide federal hazard pay for essential workers. President Joe Biden’s administration needs to secure hazard pay and benefits for essential workers who have put their livelihoods in jeopardy to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the rest of us.
At the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, exhausted workers unsurprisingly reacted to this underappreciation. More than half of all produce delivered to restaurants and supermarkets in the city first makes its way through their hands. Research into the facility has revealed that Hunts Point has been a coronavirus hotspot for its workers. Three hundred workers, or roughly 10 percent of the workforce at the market, contracted the virus in under a year, with six fatalities tied to those cases. Francisco Soto, an employee of the facility, likened the crowding of the market to Penn Station, a comparison sure to elicit shudders from anyone who has had to navigate their way through the train hub. For their work, these employees only make between $15 and $22 an hour.
In response to these conditions, all 1,400 workers of the Teamsters Local 202 Union went on strike for the first time since 1986. They demanded a three-year contract for wage raises, with an increase of $1-per-hour for each year. They also pushed for loftier employee health care, which was justified by the growing tally of coronavirus cases. Congressional politicians, like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of NY-14, attended the strike to offer their support and called on the federal government to intervene on behalf of workers. The strike concluded in under a week with an offer from the market’s cooperative board, which promised to deliver on a three-year plan to raise wages by $2-per-hour and spend more money on personal protective equipment for workers; the agreement was the largest in Hunts Point history.
Hunts Point employees are by no means the only essential workers who were forced to step up in the pandemic without a pay increase. At the onset of the pandemic, Congress advanced legislation to dedicate $200 billion to essential worker hazard pay, and a number of large companies agreed to give bonuses to frontline workers. Unfortunately, the hazard pay proposal died in the Republican-controlled Senate, and most employers terminated frontline bonuses just months into the pandemic. Without compensation for the added risk of exposure to the virus, essential worker strikes, like the Hunts Point labor strike, are necessary and inevitable; Amazon and Target employees walked off their jobs at distribution centers, fast-food workers have held walkouts, and employees at chains like Family Dollar, Instacart, and Shell have gone on strike all since March.
The Hunts Point strike occurred during the same week of the inauguration of Biden, a president who has committed to raising the federal minimum wage and delivering racial equity. His commitment is the first step for these low-wage frontline workers—who are mostly people of color—to receive a fair and livable wage. For many of these workers, their working wages are so low that they would have made more money on federal unemployment. Moreover, while individual wage agreements between companies and employees are directly responsible for take-home pay, the people working in these positions are underpinned by structural discrimination. An insufficient federal minimum wage and systemic racism hurt social mobility by keeping the same Americans in poverty. Appreciation of frontline and low-wage workers must start with the U.S. Labor Department and within Capitol Hill. If pandemic legislation can bail out corporations, it can also deliver for the hardworking Americans that the corporations would be nothing without.