During a virtual town hall on May 21 with public health professionals and labor leaders, Sen. Bernie Sanders ripped big companies for spending money on advertisements hailing frontline workers as "heroes and heroines" while refusing to pay these essential employees higher wages as they perform their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"I personally get really sick and tired of turning on the TV and seeing these companies run these ads, 'Thank you heroes and heroines, but of course we're not going to pay you any more money,'" said the Vermont senator. "That is just, to my mind, nauseating."
A number of major and notoriously abusive corporations — including Amazon, Walmart, and Uber — have run television spots and YouTube ads in recent weeks praising their employees while simultaneously continuing to pay low wages and failing to provide adequate safety equipment.
Workers sickened at Amazon warehouses
At least 32 workers at the Amazon campus in Kenosha have contracted coronavirus in the past two months, according to messages sent to employees and shared with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Jen Freiheit, health officer for Kenosha County, told the newspaper that Amazon officials have not fully cooperated with public health workers trying to track cases, inform workers who might be at risk or offering testing and other safety measures. She said that she’d consider trying to shut down the facility if it continues to deny access to health officials.
Amazon’s Kenosha plant is but one of many examples of the company’s failure to protect its workers.
On March 27, Amazon posted a video celebrating the company's "retail heroes" and vowing to do "everything we can" to ensure their health and safety. Three days later, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island walked off the job to protest the company's refusal to implement adequate workplace safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Amazon is headed by world's richest man Jeff Bezos. He’s added $34.6 billion to his wealth since coronavirus-related lockdowns began, according to a report from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program for Inequality.
Companies halting ‘hazard pay’ increases
Amazon has announced it is planning to end a $2-an-hour hazard pay increase for warehouse employees on May 31, even as company's CEO sees his wealth skyrocket. According to an analysis released by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, Bezos' fortune grew by nearly $35 billion between March 18 and May 19.
Amazon is not alone in ending small pay increases even as the coronavirus crisis continues. As Vox reported, Kroger's "hero bonus" raises ended on May 16, even as coronavirus cases continued to rise across the country. The grocer isn't alone — other companies that instituted some form of additional pay for workers earlier this year in recognition of their position on the front lines are now rolling back those increases, even though the danger is far from gone. Starbucks, for example, is planning to end a $3-per-hour raise for workers at the end of May.
Meanwhile, some companies that employ essential workers right now have seen increased sales and boosted executive pay in recent months. Kroger, for example, saw same-store sales increase 30 percent in March as customers stocked up on groceries, according to Winsight Grocery Business. And Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen received a 21 percent increase in compensation last year, boosting his income to more than $14 million.
Members of Congress and President Donald Trump have also come under fire for failing to pass hazard pay increases for frontline workers even as they honor the heroism of essential employees with military flyovers and words of praise at press conferences.
The HEROES Act — $3 trillion legislation passed by the House — includes a $200 billion "Heroes Fund" aimed at providing hazard pay for frontline workers, but the proposal's fate is unclear in the Republican-controlled Senate, which left town for Memorial Day recess on May 21.
Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.