Low-Wage Worker Protests Grow During Coronavirus Pandemic In this lockdown, low-wage workers have been publicly declared "essential" — up there with doctors and nurses. But the workers say their pay, benefits and protections don't reflect it.

More Essential Than Ever, Low-Wage Workers Demand More

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many shoppers - maybe even you - keep thanking the workers who ring them out at supermarkets. These people who work at supermarkets, warehouses and for delivery companies are considered essential during the coronavirus pandemic, but those workers say their jobs have always been essential. Now they are seizing their moment of leverage, demanding paid sick leave, better pay and benefits.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) If we don't get it...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) If we don't get it...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shut it down.

KELLY: NPR's Shannon Bond, who covers gig workers, and Alina Selyukh, who covers retail, have our story. Shannon starts us off.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Willy Solis has discovered something about himself during the coronavirus pandemic. It turns out he's a labor activist.

WILLY SOLIS: I have never done organizing in my life. I see myself falling into this as a freak accident.

BOND: This was Solis becoming a public voice of workers at Shipt, a grocery delivery app owned by Target. This month, using Facebook, he helped stage a walkout, organizing workers spread across the country all from his home in Texas. This was a huge change for Solis, who had stayed on the sidelines of protests at other companies, like Instacart.

SOLIS: I just didn't see a group of people being able to take on a company that big.

BOND: But now, after Shipt changed its pay formula yet again - this time during a pandemic - Solis couldn't stay silent any longer.

I've been hearing a lot of stories like this from other gig workers feeling agitated during this crisis.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: And I can tell you in retail and warehousing, fast food, the pandemic has also sparked a new high-profile wave of protests and strikes.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Instacart workers planning a nationwide strike...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Amazon workers and Whole Foods employees...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Some McDonald's workers...

SELYUKH: It's a mounting chorus of people facing the same struggles, whether their job is in a warehouse or factory, behind the wheel or at the cash register.

BOND: These jobs are different, but their conditions unite them - unreliable income, unpredictable schedules, limited health care and benefits.

SELYUKH: Until now, their battles have largely played out on separate stages, but the coronavirus is shining a single, wide spotlight on all this low-wage work. And organizers are seizing this moment.

CYNTHIA MURRAY: 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.

SELYUKH: Cynthia Murray has worked at a Walmart in Maryland for 19 years. She's part of a worker advocacy group called United for Respect, which, she says, early on realized it couldn't just be about unionizing. Low-wage workers are dispersed, often part-timers and temps. Jobs come and go, so the big focus was on pay. And broadly, it worked. A historic wave of labor activism during a booming economy pushed many states to raise their minimum wages. But workers like Murray are still agitating for more protections.

MURRAY: They say we have protected sick time. I'm a 19-year associate. I have to work more than a week in order to get one hour of sick time.

BOND: Paid sick time is a top priority for the gig workers I'm following, too. They're newer to the labor fight. They work alone, mostly from their cars with no water coolers to gather around. So the workers have turned to something they know well - apps. Working with union and non-union organizers, they're airing their grievances on social media and in the press to reach people that rely on their work.

SHARON GOEN: The reason we did the walk-off now is because we were hoping we would have an impact.

BOND: Sharon Goen is technically retired. She used to own a bar in Las Vegas, but she has to keep working. She makes deliveries for several apps, mainly groceries for Instacart.

GOEN: They act like, you know, we're - what do they call us? - hometown heroes or whatever. But they don't acknowledge us. And the only way they're going to make an impact with us is if they pay us what we deserve.

BOND: The company's responses have been mixed. Instacart, Amazon, Walmart and others have been distributing gloves and masks, offering bonuses and new options for time off. They say the protests are very small. Amazon has even fired several activist workers, saying they broke rules.

SELYUKH: But for many workers, this is the fleeting moment when the world sees their so-called unskilled labor as hero work. People are thanking these workers in the same breath as nurses and doctors. Employees at supermarkets and food plants have died. Even though their low-paying jobs were never supposed to be about life and death, Bartolome Perez says now they are.

BARTOLOME PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SELYUKH: Perez is a cook at a McDonald's in Los Angeles, been there 30 years. He's a longtime activist who's been on strike before. But the one this month after a co-worker tested positive for the coronavirus - it felt different.

PEREZ: (Through interpreter) 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.

SELYUKH: Perez, like Solis from Shipt, says the health crisis has fired up more workers to stand up and publicly speak out.

BOND: But how much time do they have? Labor experts warn that, historically, organizing and making demands becomes harder when unemployment skyrockets - like now, when people are desperate for work.

SELYUKH: On the flip side, as one labor professor put it to me, if you ain't got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose.

For NPR News, I'm Alina Selyukh.

BOND: And I'm Shannon Bond.

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