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More Essential Than Ever, Low-Wage Workers Demand More

For grocery delivery worker Willy Solis, the last straw came when the app Shipt changed his pay — in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

It wasn't the first time that Shipt, owned by Target, had tinkered with that formula. Solis had complained about smaller paychecks and lack of pay transparency. But now he and others like him were putting their health on the line to do their work. Solis decided he had to take action. From his home in Denton, Texas, he logged on to Facebook and started organizing a nationwide walkout.

"I have never done organizing in my life," says the soft-spoken Solis, whose brown eyes peer seriously over his face mask. "I see myself falling into this as a freak accident."

Part of that freak accident was the coronavirus pandemic, which in a matter of weeks has upended millions of lives as people hunker down at home. In this lockdown, low-wage workers have been publicly declared "essential" — up there with doctors and nurses.

But workers like Solis are discovering the value of that essential work doesn't seem to add up to much. They run cash registers, prepare food in fast food joints, haul goods at supermarkets, process packages at warehouses and deliver necessities to people's homes. Some are falling sick and even dying even though their work was never supposed to be about life and death.

"We are the same people that they didn't think we were worth $15 an hour, but now realize that we are worth way more than that," says Cynthia Murray, a long-time Walmart worker in Maryland. "I've been there 19 years and I don't even make $15 an hour. ... I have to work more than a week in order to get one hour of sick time."

And so, Solis's Shipt walkout in early April became one of many — a high-profile swell of protests by low-wage "essential" workers, from Shipt, Instacart and Uber to Amazon, Walmart, McDonald's and Whole Foods.

Until now, their labor battles largely played out on separate stages. But the coronavirus is shining a single, wide spotlight on all this low-paying work. And organizers are seizing this moment of leverage — the fleeting window when the world sees their so-called unskilled labor as hero work — to demand paid sick leave, better pay and benefits.

"The pandemic has definitely elevated our voices," Solis says.

"The most expensive hamburger you make in your life"

Workers had started with calling for basic protection against the virus: masks, gloves and disinfectant. But they are also united over workplace concerns that have gnawed at them since long before the pandemic. Most of them have unreliable income, unpredictable schedules, limited health care and benefits.

Bartolomé Perez of Los Angeles has cooked at McDonald's for 30 years. He's been on many strikes before, but he says this time feels different, with workers getting sick and even dying.
/ Courtesy of the Fight for $15 and a Union
Courtesy of the Fight for $15 and a Union
Bartolomé Perez of Los Angeles has cooked at McDonald's for 30 years. He's been on many strikes before, but he says this time feels different, with workers getting sick and even dying.

"It's not like we're demanding something new — for years we've been demanding safety of working conditions," says Bartolomé Perez, who's worked as a cook at McDonald's for 30 years, speaking in Spanish.

He's been on many strikes before, but he says this time it feels different, with workers getting sick and even dying.

"But the circumstances are different now," Perez says. "Because you know that every time you go out it could be your last — or it could be the most expensive hamburger you make in your life."

An army of local groups, community organizers and large labor unions are recognizing the power of this moment. The Mobile Workers Alliance is working with the Service Employees International Union to organize Lyft and Uber drivers in Los Angeles.

SEIU, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and retail-focused United for Respect have been mobilizing grocery and fast-food workers. A new coalition called Athena has targeted Amazon with a staccato of strikes and press conferences featuring workers criticizing the company's safety measures and policies.

Most of these organizers are building on a decade of activism that saw fast-food, retail and other low-wage workers striking and marching for higher pay. The SEIU-backed Fight for $15 movement got the kind of attention that led many cities and states to raise their stagnant minimum wages.

Workers learned many lessons during that period. The biggest one was that they had to think beyond just unionizing, because low-wage jobs are quick-churning and dispersed, often part-time and temporary.

They realized, "we have to be smarter," Walmart veteran Murray says. "A union ain't for us, that's never going to work, but we didn't have to be inside a square box. We could think outside of that box."

"An extraordinary moment in the labor movement"

This time, the group of workers is broadening out to include millions of 21st-century app workers in the so-called gig economy. The nature of gig work has also made it hard to organize. Delivery workers and drivers work alone, mostly from their cars, with no water coolers to gather around.

But lately, they have come together using the same technology that makes the companies they work for possible: smartphone apps. They are airing their grievances on social media and in the press to win the sympathy of their customers — people who rely on their work.

​"It's an extraordinary moment in the labor movement. It's almost impossible to underestimate what an extraordinary time it is," says Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.

"COVID — it's like an X-ray of all the ... existing relationships of power and inequality and problematic issues in the labor market. [In so many industries,] we've taken good full-time jobs and turned them into bad part-time jobs."

Sharon Goen, a former Las Vegas bar owner, is retired, but she delivers groceries for Instacart to make ends meet.
/ Courtesy of Vincent Allbritton
Courtesy of Vincent Allbritton
Sharon Goen, a former Las Vegas bar owner, is retired, but she delivers groceries for Instacart to make ends meet.

Many gig workers are frustrated with what they see as a disconnect between how the companies talk about their work and the realities of their jobs. Because the app companies consider them independent contractors, not employees, they lack basic benefits like paid sick leave and health insurance. Their pay is set by algorithms and it changes often, making it hard for workers to predict their income.

"What do they call us? Hometown heroes or whatever. But they don't acknowledge us," says Sharon Goen, a former bar owner who delivers for Instacart and other apps in Las Vegas. "The only way they're going to make an impact with us is if they pay us what we deserve."

A narrow window of opportunity

The companies' responses to the protests have been mixed. Instacart, Amazon, Walmart and others frequently talk about distributing gloves and masks, offering bonuses and new options for time off. Stores, warehouses and other facilities have stepped up cleanings.

The companies have also dismissed the protests as very small. Amazon has even fired several activist workers, saying they broke unrelated rules.

Workers have won some support in Washington. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats have proposed a so-called Bill of Rights For Essential Workers — guaranteeing free health care and other benefits.

But it is unclear how much time protesters will have to press their cause, as the economy deteriorates, unemployment skyrockets and people become desperate for work.

"What history shows us is that it's in good economic times that workers are able to demand more — much harder to do that in bad [times]," says Fine, from Rutgers.

"On the one hand, I'm really worried that we're going to come out of this with ... a lot more exploitation, people just taking what they can get. The flip side is, if you ain't got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose."

Editor's note: Target, Amazon, Walmart, McDonald's, Uber and Lyft are among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.