OPINION: Essential workers deserve hazard pay, not just praise and thanks

Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation

Minneapolis (PAI) – Over the course of the pandemic, we have praised our essential workers over and over again. Now it’s time to give them what they really deserve: Hazard pay.

Essential workers on the front lines sacrificed their lives and the safety of their families to provide us with food, care for our children, manufacture our goods, deliver packages to our front steps and provide medical care.

They were lifted up as heroes. They were printed as cartoons with flying capes and superhero masks. We all gave them a collective “pat on the back” for a job well done.

Too many essential workplaces went on for months as “business as usual” while the growing pandemic engulfed our communities.

But while essential workers were carrying out their duties, they were also having to fight for proper protection. Essential workers rallied together to make homemade masks. Frontline homecare workers used garbage bags as protective coverings when they had nothing else. Even when personal protective equipment (PPE) was made widely available, it was often too little too late.

In some essential workplaces — notably a pork plant in Iowa –– managers were betting on how many workers would get sick and die as a pastime game. And when workers did start to fall ill from the disease, they had to fight for paid time off. Many had to quarantine and take time off using personal time, or unpaid time. Facing no other options, some would even report to work sick, potentially exposing coworkers.

Essential workers persevered through one of the worst global disasters in our history. Now, it is time to put real support behind the superhero capes and pats on the back.

Over the last six months, essential workers in unionized fields faced bargaining sessions with firms who offered zero wage increases and healthcare coverage cuts. Essential workers without collective bargaining power faced even harsher cutbacks and austerity.

Thankfully, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act and the Minnesota Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act, we have an opportunity to put well-earned hazard pay into the hands of the workers who never wavered when we needed it most.

Now that these critical pieces of legislation have been passed, let us work together to ensure the rules and implementation reach those who need it most. While it will never be enough to repay their sacrifices, it is a small recognition of the enormous value of their service. Thank you to essential workers on the front lines. But this must be just the start.

(This op-ed first appeared in the Minneapolis Labor Review. Used by permission.)

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