Essential Worker Pay Is a Reproductive Justice Issue

| Reproaction

By: Nataley Neuman

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role of what has historically been categorized as ‘low-wage’ and ‘unskilled’ labor. From day one, frontline workers – such as grocery store clerks, homecare and nursing facility workers, delivery truck drivers, warehouse workers, and fast food workers – have put their health and the health of their families in jeopardy to meet the needs of others. The need for this critical labor should be met with a living wage, adequate benefits, hazard pay, and more, and those changes should continue long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, 53 million Americans, about 44 percent of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 64, hold low-wage jobs, [2] meaning that the myth that low-wage workers are young and/or only working for a disposable income is false. Further, more than half of low-wage workers are white, with a quarter of low-wage workers being Latino or Hispanic; additionally, 15 percent of low-wage workers are Black while 5 percent are Asian-American. [1] Indeed, evidence suggests that women and Black workers are the most overrepresented in the low-wage workforce, [2, 3] meaning that oppressed and marginalized communities are risking their health and the health of their loved ones during this pandemic by shouldering the weight of essential labor while earning low and unsustainable wages.

COVID-19 also disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. According to data collected by a number of states, “Black Americans are statistically more likely than their non-Black counterparts to face the kind of chronic health problems and lack of access to adequate health care that can transform COVID-19 from manageable to fatal.” [5] This is shown in a number of states, but is especially true in places like Wisconsin, where Black residents account for 81 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Milwaukee County. [5]

Low-wage workers were already struggling to get by before the COVID-19 pandemic due to unsustainable and/or low wages (with the federal minimum wage set at $7.25 per hour since 2009) as well as few or no adequate benefits. [7] Organizations such as the Fight for $15 have long called for an increase in workers benefits as a human rights issue, and have continued to show leadership in demanding increases in pay, sick leave, and hazard pay for essential workers. [8] Though activists continue to work to increase benefits for frontline workers, there is no federal legal requirement for hazard pay. [6] This struggle is only exacerbated by the growing unemployment rate, declining economy, and sharp and steady increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Essential workers continue to show up every day despite a lack of adequate protections, hazard pay, adequate wages, sick leave, time off, and more. Essential workers deserve respect, admiration, and fair compensation as a matter of human dignity.

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