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Coronavirus hazard pay for metro Atlanta workers is hit or miss

Patrons gather outside of The Home Depot to gather supplies in Dunwoody. The Home Depot has been letting a limited number of people into their store during the spread of COVID-19. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)
Patrons gather outside of The Home Depot to gather supplies in Dunwoody. The Home Depot has been letting a limited number of people into their store during the spread of COVID-19. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

Waffle House cook Iyana Phillips isn’t getting extra pay for the extra risk she has faced working in close proximity to others during a fast-spreading pandemic.

In fact, she’s been making less. Her $10.50 hourly rate was cut by about a dollar and her hours sliced in half as the coronavirus keeps diners away in droves. First, the Norcross-based restaurant chain’s chairman said he eliminated his own salary and chopped all managers’ compensation by 20%. Then, Phillips said, cooks like her took a pay reduction.

“I can’t criticize them,” she said of the chain. “It’s not their fault.”

Many metro Atlanta workers — from those at Kroger to RaceTrac and Truist to AT&T — are getting higher hourly wages or bonuses for staying on the front lines of commerce during the spread of COVID-19. But many others aren’t in line for such money. Some are just glad to have jobs in a plunging economy.

Rewards vary widely for those getting extra because their jobs don’t allow them to work at home. And the situation for health workers — among those most exposed to coronavirus risk — is even less certain.

Some workers are pushing for increased pay and greater safety protections, launching online petitions or trying to force employers’ hands. Whole Foods workers seeking concessions such as doubled hourly wages during the pandemic called for a sick-out protest Tuesday. Gig shoppers for Instacart called for a strike of the grocery delivery service starting Monday to push for changes, including boosting shopper pay by $5 an order and defaulting in-app tips to at least 10%. Instacart, which has said it wants to add 300,000 shoppers, said it plans to pay bonuses of $25 to $200 to some workers.

Meanwhile, a Home Depot spokeswoman said Thursday the Atlanta-based retailer will pay $100 weekly bonuses to all store and distribution center employees who work at least 35 hours a week and $50 weekly bonuses to those working 20 to 34 hours a week.

Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens and Lowe’s are all offering one-time bonuses of $300 to many full-time workers, or $150 to many part-time workers. CVS said it will give one-time bonuses of $150 to $500. Truist, formed from the combination of SunTrust Bank and BB&T, announced $1,200 pre-tax bonuses for all its employees making less than $100,000 a year. Columbus-based Synovus will increase hourly non-exempt on-site employee pay by $50 for each day worked, up to $500 a pay period.

Hourly store employees of RaceTrac, the locally based gas and convenience store chain, will get an extra $3 an hour, according to the company. Both Target and Amazon are offering $2 an hour more for many workers, while restaurant workers at Chipotle are slated to get 10% added to their hourly wages. AT&T said it will pay its union employees 20% extra on top of their regular hourly rate.

Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Healthcare Association, said some skilled nursing centers are providing hazard pay to frontline workers, especially in facilities where a resident has tested positive. He said it’s being used to retain workers who are critically needed at this time in health care settings.

Meanwhile, Wellstar Health System declined to comment on specific compensation issues related to the pandemic.

In some settings, government workers will receive more pay. DeKalb County chief executive officer Michael Thurmond has directed that “front line workers,” such as police, fire, EMS, water, sanitation and roads, will receive double their regular compensation. Half will be in pay and the other half will be in comp time.

ExploreAnd Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Tuesday directed additional $500 monthly payments to front-line employees who must report to work. 

Still, many employers aren’t taking such steps.

Restaurants generally don’t seem to be offering such extras, said Karen Bremer, the chief executive officer of the Georgia Restaurant Association. She pointed out that many full-service restaurants have closed or significantly scaled back their workforce as their sales have cratered. Many jurisdictions including the city of Atlanta have banned dining in at restaurants. Phillips, the Waffle House cook, now handles only to-go orders, with customers ordering and making pickups at the front door.

Package delivery giant UPS, one of the nation’s largest employers, said it isn’t offering hazard pay. Emory University did not provide answers by late Monday afternoon about whether it does or will.

Publix said it will accelerate pay increases for workers, but did not specify amounts.

Many other workers who spoke with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter said they aren’t getting any extra pay and stressed their bigger focus is to remain employed.

“I’m scared,” said a man working behind the counter of a 24-hour convenience store and gas station in Suwanee. “You don’t know who has it.”

But he said he hasn’t asked his employer for extra pay, figuring he needs to avoid putting his job at risk. “I have to work. It’s no choice.”

Rashad Wilson just started a job as a furniture deliverer for what amounts to less than $10 an hour. It doesn’t include a bump up in wages for coming close to people in their homes or spending much of the day seated beside a co-worker driving the truck. Much of the time on the road, they are listening to news on the radio about the toll of COVID-19.

“It’s the coronavirus, but everyday life is still going on,” he said.

Sedrice Williams, a Home Depot sales associate, praised his employer for adding weekly hazard pay. Still, the 52-year-old said he has asthma, and his wife faces her own health issues, which put them at elevated risk. “I’d rather not work, but I’ve got to work.”

He has yet to take Home Depot up on its pandemic-related offer of 80 extra hours of paid time off for full-time employees. He’s been resistant to burn up that additional benefit so far. He said he just wishes Home Depot had put coronavirus safety measures in place in stores sooner.

Mikesha Walker, a Gwinnett County bus driver, started an online petition seeking hazard pay for transit workers across the country. As of Friday morning, it had more than 1,800 signatures.

Both MARTA and the state’s Xpress bus system said they have no plans for hazard pay, but have taken steps to protect workers. Representatives of Cobb and Gwinnett County transit systems said decisions about hazard pay would be up to private contractors that operate their services.

— Staff writers David Wickert, Carrie Teegardin and Tyler Estep contributed to this article.