Front-line workers this Labor Day: essential, but not secure

Hourly, low-wage workers face higher health, job-loss risks amid virus
Led by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, demonstrators on Friday outside the Atlanta office of Sen. David Perdue calling on him to support hazard pay for front-line workers.

Credit: Tom Griscom, contributed

Credit: Tom Griscom, contributed

Led by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, demonstrators on Friday outside the Atlanta office of Sen. David Perdue calling on him to support hazard pay for front-line workers.

As the pandemic hit in March, thousands of Georgia businesses were shutting down and LaTonya Gardner already had been four months without a job, so she was glad to be hired at a Kroger market.

A former teacher, she says she was having trouble paying her Marietta rent and Kroger was paying $11 an hour. “The way I look at it, some money is better than no money.”

At that point, front-line workers were being praised, thanked and sometimes — as with Kroger — paid extra for providing essential services while exposing themselves to greater risks of infection than those who could work from home.

Half a year into the pandemic, Labor Day arrives with more front-line workers back on the job than a few months ago, but still often uneasy about their finances and health.

Hazard pay has long ended for most, even as the coronavirus keeps spreading. And while Georgia’s economy continues to recover from a spring shutdown, hourly, low-wage workers on the front lines are more likely to lose their jobs than high-paid, white-collar workers. Workers also enjoy fewer benefits and protections than in many other states.

So front-line workers grateful to have jobs worry about the risks they take and about jobs too tenuous to let them take time off on what was once a blue-collar holiday.

“Each and every day going into work, you feel at risk,” said a long-time supermarket worker in metro Atlanta who, fearing retribution, asked to be identified only as Mary. “Then we have to go back home to our families.

“They make the schedule,” she said. “And if you’re on the schedule, you work.”

If you still have a job.

Of the 237,000 jobs Georgia lost since February, about half were shed in hospitality, retail and manufacturing, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

A study co-authored by economist Simon Mongey at the University of Chicago showed job cuts mostly affecting people who cannot work from home. “These workers are disproportionately less educated, have limited health care, are toward the bottom of the income distribution,” he said.

Pandemic or not, Labor Day is a kind of blue-collar special: The vast majority of workers on the job in metro Atlanta are people doing front-line jobs in retail, delivery and emergency services.

The metro area alone has about 300,000 workers in retail and sales jobs, 250,000 people doing food-related work, 16,000 police officers and 8,000 emergency medical technicians and dispatchers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We’ve kind of taken them for granted,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who has studied the labor market. “They had no choice. If your employer says ‘Go back to work,’ you have to do it.”

With COVID-19 still uncontrolled, scientists say the greatest risks are spending prolonged periods with crowds indoors or working in close proximity to others. Some companies have put up barriers between workers, rearranged schedules and required masks for customers and employees.

That’s harder in some workplaces, especially factories. Meat plants, especially, have struggled with coronavirus outbreaks.

“At times I feel essential,” said David, a maintenance technician at a roughly 1,000-worker poultry processing plant in Hall County, who asked that his last name not be used. “I know that everybody working in the food chain is needed to feed America.”

In the spring, the company gave workers two checks totaling $300 as hazard pay. Pay did not change since. The plant added temperature checks, masks and shields, and scheduled a break between shifts to prevent intermingling.

But the number of virus cases has been creeping back up, David said.

There are few regulatory mandates and little official oversight of businesses. Some companies are more meticulous about safety than others. Some customers don’t wear masks when entering businesses, putting workers at risk.

Legislation signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in early August shields companies against coronavirus-related lawsuits from employees or customers. Plaintiffs have to demonstrate gross negligence, a high legal bar.

Kroger spokesman Felix Turner said his company has invested millions of dollars in safety and the virus-linked bonuses of the spring. Shields were installed at registers, temperature checks were added before shifts and workers must now sanitize high-touch surfaces, he said.

Whatever the safety concerns, as Labor Day approached so did the need to make September’s rent or mortgage payments.

More than 500,000 Georgians are receiving unemployment benefits, far more than the number of job openings, and the state’s jobless rate is still more than double what it was before the pandemic.

Georgia’s monthly maximum unemployment benefit is $365, less than most states. And while Congress passed an emergency bill in March that added $600 a week to unemployment benefits for workers, that lapsed in July. A temporary, $300-a-week substitute has yet to go into effect.

Given the options, Labor Day is a day to labor.

About 40% of metro Atlanta’s 2.8 million jobs paid $15 an hour or less, according to a 2019 Brookings Institution report. Many hourly workers do not have paid holidays or sick pay. When those jobs have benefits, they may depend on employees reaching a threshold they cannot control.

“They won’t give me enough hours,” complained one supermarket worker, who declined to give her name. “Whenever I get close to 40, they cut me back.”

At a recent event celebrating a new Amazon distribution center in Gwinnett County, Kemp touted the trade publication Area Development naming Georgia the best state for doing business for the seventh consecutive year. Fewer regulations and lower taxes are strong magnets.

Still, the growth has not been good for all, according to Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“We have gotten there at the expense of low-wage workers,” Camardelle said. “We prioritize the profits of companies over the health of workers and their families.”

As a place for workers during the pandemic, Georgia only scored higher than Missouri and Alabama nationally, according to a study by Oxfam America. The anti-poverty group examined legal protections, health care coverage and unemployment benefits, said Kaitlyn Henderson, senior researcher for Oxfam.

She praised Georgia for easing requirements for receiving the federal benefits commonly referred to as food stamps, but said working people need more support to prevent evictions, loan delinquencies and a crush of debt. She added school closures and joblessness are disproportionately hurting single mothers and communities of color.

“These things will have consequences that will be felt for years to come,” Henderson said.

State officials rejected the notion that a good business climate is bad for workers.

Job growth has been better than the national average, the cost of living is ninth-lowest in the country and wages have risen, said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for Georgia’s Department of Labor.

The pressure to work on Labor Day also is not limited to the front lines.

The extra hazard pay at Kroger ended in late spring, right around the time Gardner, the former teacher, left. She wanted to make more than she’d made in the store, but it was safety worries that pushed her to take another job.

“I don’t know where you’ve been and you are putting me at risk,” she said. “This is nothing to play with — I want to live for a long time.”

Gardner now works at home supervising contractors handling calls about solar power projects. She seemed surprised to be reminded that Monday was a holiday.

“I don’t see why I wouldn’t be working,” she said.

Share of Georgia jobless claims/share of Georgia jobs*:

Accommodation and Food Services: 23.9%/11.4%

Health Care and Social Assistance: 11.7%/13.2%

Retail Trade: 10.8%/12.6%

Administrative and Support Services: 8.4%/8.6%

Manufacturing: 7.7%/10.4%

*share of jobless claims during pandemic; share of jobs as of February

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Average weekly wage in metro Atlanta:

Food services and drinking places:     $383

Food and beverages stores:     $479

General merchandise stores:     $479

Social assistance: $513

Gasoline stations:      $547

Warehousing and storage: $829

Source: 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data