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Why Essential Workers Are Not Paid More After Their Jobs Got Risky


Many essential workers are making as much money now as they were before the pandemic, before their jobs got risky. But higher-risk jobs are supposed to pay more, so why isn't it happening? Here's Sarah Gonzalez with NPR's Planet Money podcast.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Yesenia Ortiz works at a grocery store called Compare Foods in Greensboro, N.C.

What do you have under your mask? Do you have another mask under your mask?

YESENIA ORTIZ: No, I have, like, a tissue because I don't want to ruin my mask under the lipstick.

GONZALEZ: You're still wearing lipstick underneath there?

ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah. You know Latina girls.

GONZALEZ: Latina girls (laughter).

Ortiz works in the back of the store. She unloads the trucks and restocks the shelves.

ORTIZ: Well, I'm refilling, but I'm also cleaning the shelves. This is what I do every day.

FATIMA PAVON: Hey. How are you?

GONZALEZ: Her co-worker Fatima Pavon is ringing up customers.

PAVON: It's going to be $17.78.

GONZALEZ: Do you mind me asking how much you get paid?

PAVON: I get paid $9.20.

GONZALEZ: Nine dollars twenty cents an hour?


GONZALEZ: So what is, like, a weekly paycheck? How much does it end up being?

PAVON: About - I want to say $300. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Three hundred dollars a week, no health insurance and, for now, no hazard pay, no things like hero bonuses - which some grocery stores have done - no extra $1 or $2 an hour.

No one has said anything? Like, no one has said, like, can you get us a freakin' raise?

PAVON: No one has said anything, and I have been tempted to be that first person (laughter) being like, you know, like, other places are getting a raise; I think we should, too, you know. But...

GONZALEZ: Grocery store workers like Pavon and Ortiz are now exposed to a level of risk that they did not sign up for or agree to when they took these jobs years ago. And Arindrajit Dube, a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that in a normal labor market, a good labor market, their wages would go up on their own once their jobs got riskier.

ARINDRAJIT DUBE: So in normal times, if a job suddenly becomes more dangerous, you're just not going to have as many workers willing to take that job unless it pays more to compensate for the higher risk.

GONZALEZ: Higher-risk jobs pay more. They compensate for the risk. But this only really happens on its own in a competitive labor market, when workers have options and employers are competing for workers.

DUBE: However, if the labor market is really anemic, where there's very few employers who are actually hiring - which is the case right now - that mechanism really breaks down.

GONZALEZ: No one is competing with the bosses for labor, so the employers - the bosses - they have the wage-setting power, not the workers, which means wages are just not likely to go up right now.

Because Fatima's boss is like, what else are you going to do?

DUBE: Fatima's boss is relatively less worried about Fatima getting another option in the current labor market than in a labor market three months ago.

GONZALEZ: Dube says all of this just makes it a really bad time to ask for a raise. But the other day, Fatima Pavon got close to almost asking.

PAVON: Yeah, I actually wanted to just kind of talk to him and be like - like, how would he feel about it (laughter).

GONZALEZ: What stops you from doing it?

PAVON: I'm scared (laughter) because...

GONZALEZ: It is so hard to ask for a raise.

Democrats in the House and Senate have proposed giving essential workers extra money for the risk they face, tucking $200 billion in hazard pay into the so-called HEROES Act. But it hasn't passed. And for Fatima Pavon still hasn't asked for her raise.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, Greensboro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez is the multimedia education reporter for WLRN's StateImpact Florida project. She comes from NPR in D.C. where she was a national desk reporter, web and show producer as an NPR Kroc Fellow. The San Diego native has worked as a reporter and producer for KPBS in San Diego and KALW in San Francisco, covering under-reported issues like youth violence, food insecurity and public education. Her work has been awarded an SPJ Sigma Delta Chi and regional Edward R. Murrow awards. She graduated from Mills College in 2009 with a bachelorâ
Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.