The fight for hazard pay for frontline essential workers : Planet Money We spend a morning at a grocery store and we ask: How much is essential work worth? | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

About That Hazard Pay

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So I'm just going to hang out with you. Would you say your name for me?

YESENIA ORTIZ: Yesenia Ortiz (ph).

GONZALEZ: And you are talking to me from behind a mask?

ORTIZ: Behind a mask, yeah, to protect myself and to protect others, too.

GONZALEZ: Yesenia Ortiz works at a grocery store called Compare Foods in Greensboro, N.C.

What do you have under your mask? Do you have another mask under your mask?

ORTIZ: No, I have, like, a T-shirt because I don't want to ruin my mask under the lipstick.

GONZALEZ: The lipstick? So you're still wearing lipstick underneath there?

ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don't know. You know, Latina girls.

GONZALEZ: Latina girls (laughter)?

ORTIZ: You have to be perfect.

GONZALEZ: You have to put - you can't leave the house without lipstick.

ORTIZ: Not without lipstick, yeah.


Yesenia doesn't work in the front. She works in the back. She unloads the trucks and restocks the shelves.

ORTIZ: Well, I'm refilling, but I'm also cleaning the shelves. This is what I do every day.

GONZALEZ: Right now, she's restocking cleaning supplies.

ORTIZ: They've been asking me every day for alcohol, Windex, Clorox - for wiping Clorox. Yeah, every day. Oh, we don't got none. We run out. I'm so sorry. They get so frustrated.

GONZALEZ: And it's not only customers who are getting frustrated with Yesenia. Just getting to her job seems to upset people. Yesenia has been having these weird interactions with some of her neighbors.

ORTIZ: They question me why I was getting out in quarantine.

GONZALEZ: Like the other day, she was getting into her car, and one of her neighbors comes out and is like, where are you going?

ORTIZ: 'Cause they see me every day driving and then come back and then coming in. So they question me like, hey, you. Are you violating, you know, the quarantine? 'Cause I work in the supermarket.

GONZALEZ: So they were kind of, like, maybe mad at you a little bit for leaving?

ORTIZ: Yeah. Some of them, yeah. But I try, like, to smile.

GONZALEZ: Like, hi, yes. Sorry. I work in a supermarket. That's why you see me leaving the house all the time. And then she goes to work.

ORTIZ: And then when I come back, that same person who was checking on me is spying on me. I give them the food.

GONZALEZ: Yesenia gave this neighbor food - bags full of groceries.

ORTIZ: Listen; I really do work in my supermarket. Look; if you don't believe me, you could come - welcome to come and see I'm there. And she said, oh, my God. Are you sure? Yeah. And she said thank you.

GONZALEZ: We are in a moment where inequality has become really, really visible. Some people get to stay home, keep an eye on their neighbors, while others have to work, right in the middle of a pandemic. And a lot of them, like grocery store workers, did not sign up for this health risk. And still, they are not getting paid much.

ORTIZ: To get paid a little bit more - that will be a dream come true (laughter). That will be a dream come true.


ORTIZ: She's checking on me. She wants me to hurry up.

GONZALEZ: Your boss just told you to hurry up?

ORTIZ: Yeah.


GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Many of the essential workers right now are low-paid. They are warehouse and delivery people, truck drivers, bus drivers, janitors, grocery store workers and women, especially women of color are disproportionately likely to be working in jobs deemed essential. A lot of those jobs have always paid less. But now that they're essential, these workers are being asked to risk more. Their titles got fancier, but their jobs got way worse. And the market is supposed to solve this, reward risk. So why aren't workers getting paid more?


GONZALEZ: Today on the show, we spent a morning at a grocery store. And we ask, how much is essential work worth?

FATIMA PAVON: Here you go. Have a good one.


PAVON: Hey. How are you?


PAVON: It's going to be 17.78.

OK, my name is Fatima (ph). I am a supervisor at Compare Foods supermarket in Greensboro.

GONZALEZ: Fatima started working at Compare Foods when she was 17. She is now 21.

PAVON: So I have a baby. I have a 9-month baby girl, so...

GONZALEZ: So little.

PAVON: Yeah, she's very little.

GONZALEZ: And what's your last name?

PAVON: Pavon.


PAVON: Yes, P-A-V-O-N. I'm Mexican.

GONZALEZ: The people who work at this grocery store are mostly women and all people of color.

PAVON: Oh, no white people work here. No. No, not that I - no. We do have, you know, a little bit of everything except white people, yeah.

GONZALEZ: An Associated Press analysis of the country's 100 largest cities says essential workers are mostly women, people of color and more likely to be immigrants. A New York Times analysis says nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. Almost all of the nurses, 9 out of 10 - women. About two-thirds of the people who work at fast-food counters and grocery store checkouts - women. And there is a real risk of death for these employees. Grocery store workers have died of COVID-19. So at Fatima's store, there are all these signs hanging up saying, please, please, please, keep your distance.

PAVON: So that one's in Spanish. So that one says, (speaking Spanish) COVID-19, like stop it. Yeah, that's what it's saying.

GONZALEZ: All the cashiers just got these clear shields installed right in front of their registers, but they're narrow. So when Fatima is scanning items or bagging groceries or when customers are paying, there's no shield there. She and the customers are face-to-face.

PAVON: Yeah, so it's definitely hard to keep our distance because, I mean, they'll come up, and they're practically jumping over the counter.

GONZALEZ: And it's not just crowded at the register. All over the store, it's just hard to keep your distance.

PAVON: Like, I could be standing right here, you know, stocking up and a customer comes up, and he's literally, like, right beside you or, like, leans over, reaches over you to try to get a meat, you know? You're, like, excuse me, can you back up? And, like, you know, ma'am, back up a little bit (laughter). And then, yeah, there's customers that get upset, like I said, yeah.

GONZALEZ: When the pandemic started, a couple of workers at this grocery store did quit. It just wasn't worth the risk for them, even with the signs and the shields. But then one came back. She needed the job. Fatima says going to work is a little scary for all of them.

PAVON: I do get scared of exposing my family. You know, my mom would rather me not be here. Sometimes you want to just say, forget this. Like, I'm going to just go home. But then you can't because, you know, this is what is helping you stay afloat. Like, this is your income. This is your only source of income, so, you know, you have no choice.

GONZALEZ: Fatima says she actually really wants to keep working. Like, she wants to know that she'll have a job when this is all over. She likes that kind of stability.

PAVON: Because, you know, I also need the money. So, like I said, it's really up to me how I protect myself from the customers, knowing that, you know, they haven't said anything - you know, if we were to get sick, if they'd help or not - you know, and not having, like, the health insurance and all that.

GONZALEZ: Do you mind me asking how much you get paid?

PAVON: I get paid 9.20.

GONZALEZ: Nine dollars and 20 cents an hour?


GONZALEZ: So what is, like, a weekly paycheck? How much does it end up being?

PAVON: About - I want to say 300, yeah.

GONZALEZ: Three-hundred dollars a week, no health insurance and, for now, no hazard pay, no things like hero bonuses, which some grocery stores have done, no extra $1 or $2 an hour, which others have done. And Fatima says her boss doesn't pay, like, super badly or anything like that. There are pay raises. He pays bilingual workers more - things like that. But so far, at this grocery store and many grocery stores - probably most grocery stores - workers are making as much as they were before the pandemic, before their jobs got risky.

You don't ever - like, no one has said anything? Like, no one has said, like, can you get us a frickin' raise?

PAVON: No one has said anything. And I have been tempted to be that first person (laughter) because I do work with my boss, and that's what I feel like. I feel more comfortable being that first person - being, like, you know, like, Juan (ph), other places are getting a raise. I think we should, too, you know? But it's definitely something that I've thought about doing, yeah.

GONZALEZ: Fatima says extra pay would help out a lot of the cashiers who have had to work fewer hours because their kids are at home and they don't have babysitters. Plus, she says she thinks they should just get extra pay right now for the risk because they did not agree to this risk. They did not sign up for this risk when they took these jobs. And Fatima says she'd be fine if the extra pay just kind of, like, went away back to normal once this is all over.

PAVON: But, I mean, like I said, it'd be amazing if we were to get a raise right now and it stayed afterwards, you know? But one can only dream (laughter). But you know.

GONZALEZ: OK. Fatima, we're going to check in with you, see if you do ever ask your boss for a raise or if you ever get, like, close to it one day.

But Fatima's chances of getting a raise, if she does bring herself to ask for one, might not be great. To talk about why, we called up a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

ARINDRAJIT DUBE: My full name is Arindrajit Dube. I usually in radio and TV go by my shortened version, Arin Dube.

GONZALEZ: OK. In a normal labor market - a good labor market - Arindrajit Dube - Arin - says that Fatima's wages would go up on their own once her job got riskier.

DUBE: So in normal times, if a job suddenly becomes more dangerous, you're just not going to have as many workers willing to take that job unless it pays more to compensate for the higher risk.

GONZALEZ: Higher-risk jobs pay more.

DUBE: So this is the kind of thing that we economists call compensating differential.

GONZALEZ: Compensating differential - compensating for the higher risk. But this only really happens on its own in a competitive labor market, when workers have options and employers have to compete for workers. That's when the bosses pay more.

DUBE: However, if the labor market is really anemic, where there's very few employers who are actually hiring, which is the case right now, that mechanism really breaks down.

GONZALEZ: Meaning compensating differentials, compensating risk - that really breaks down. Wages are just not likely to go up right now - not on their own. So if Fatima is going to get a pay raise, her boss needs to be worried that someone else is going to offer her a better job - a better-paying job or a safer job - 'cause Fatima's boss is, like, well, what are you - what else are you going to do? Like, I'm not really worried that you're going to go to another job.

DUBE: Exactly. Fatima's boss is relatively less worried about Fatima getting another option in the current labor market than in a labor market three months ago.

GONZALEZ: Because no one is competing with the bosses for labor. The employers, the bosses - they have the power - not the workers, not Fatima.

DUBE: Exactly, so more employer-side wage-setting power.

GONZALEZ: So it is not looking good for Fatima and all the other Fatimas of the moment. It is just a really bad time to ask for a raise.

DUBE: Now, some employers have raised wages somewhat, right? For example, Amazon has provided a $2 an hour bonus for its workers. Is that sufficient? I think there's serious questions whether that's enough.

GONZALEZ: And here's what really stings. Fatima and a bunch of other low-wage essential workers who are going into work - they could actually make more money if they got laid off.

Has that ever happened before?

DUBE: This has never happened before. The good news is they have a job, in some sense. The bad news is that they have a job.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Here's why. Unemployment benefits are better than they've ever been. If you lose your job, each state gives unemployment. In some states, you get, like, 30% of what your regular pay was. In other states, it's 50% or 60%. But in every one of these states right now, people are getting extra unemployment pay from the federal government. They're getting $600 a week extra.

DUBE: Just to put that in perspective, that's about $15 an hour.

GONZALEZ: OK. Let's say, like, North Carolina didn't even give Fatima unemployment benefits. Fatima makes $300 a week currently, so she would be getting - if all she got was the federal government, here's your unemployment check because of the pandemic, if all she got was those $600 a week, that would be double what she's making now.

DUBE: Exactly. It is a very troubling situation where we are asking people who we deem to be essential to both take on greater risk than they could've possibly imagined doing when they took this job and actually get paid less than they would if they were not working.

GONZALEZ: Oh, my gosh.

DUBE: That's a very perverse situation. And I think it's something that, as a society, we ought to do better.

GONZALEZ: What if she just stops showing up to work to get fired so that she can make double her current salary?

DUBE: So this is the challenge. If Fatima gets fired for cause because she refuses to show up to work or just doesn't do her work, Fatima is going to have a hard time qualifying for unemployment benefits.


DUBE: You have to be laid off because there's just not enough work.

GONZALEZ: Wow. Of course, obviously, it is not great to be unemployed and this $600 a week boost will only be around through July, unless it gets extended. But, yeah, there are a bunch of people who are getting paid more money now than they were making at work working.

DUBE: I don't see it being a real big problem that we're giving a lot of money to people who are generally lower-wage workers. There are many reasons why I think that's a good idea. One of them is that when we actually do start to recover, this means we're putting money in the hands of exactly those people who are most likely to spend. And this is going to help us grow our way back in terms of the recovery.

GONZALEZ: But Arin says Congress should also do something for the essential workers, the ones who are still on the job, facing risk and aren't collecting unemployment.

DUBE: Just like the federal government is paying people to not work right now, they should also pay people to work if we think that work is so important.

GONZALEZ: Democrats in the Senate have proposed giving all essential workers $25,000 in hazard pay. It would go to doctors and nurses, but also truck drivers and janitors and grocery store workers and a bunch of others. The governor of New York said the federal government should give all essential workers a 50% bonus. But so far, no hazard pay - not from Congress or the White House. Meanwhile, trillions and trillions of dollars have gone to unemployment and to $1,200 coronavirus stimulus checks to everyone and to two rounds of small-business bailouts.

And all of these government interventions, unemployment bonuses, maybe hazard pay, they are happening on a scale that we haven't seen in generations. And Arindrajit says it all might have long-term consequences - good ones.

DUBE: So crises do have a way of having unanticipated consequences that could really change things. Is that going to happen this time around? It's way too early to say. And, you know, it's possible that maybe this is just a blip. On the other hand, it's also possible that certain things, including our just reassessing of what type of work is important, how we should compensate people, thinking about what people deserve if they're actually out of work - all of these things could have a long-term effect in the way we restructure our labor market, restructure our wages, restructure public policy.


GONZALEZ: After the break, we check in with Fatima to see if she asked for her raise.

Fatima, I have been thinking about you all weekend.

It's been nine days since I spent a morning at Fatima's grocery store. And we took precautions, tried to keep our distance from each other, from other people at the grocery store, but it wasn't always possible to stay 100% safe.

I've just been, like, very scared that I got coronavirus from being at the grocery store, like, because I haven't gone anywhere. Like, you're the only person I've seen in a month and a half.

PAVON: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: And I'm like, do I feel my chest - like, oh, my God, is my chest tight? Am I having trouble breathing? Like...

PAVON: Yeah, definitely. That's how I felt for me at the, like, very beginning. And even now, whenever I'm around a lot of customers, I still feel paranoid here and there.

GONZALEZ: I have been worrying about grocery store workers since the beginning of all of this. But after spending that morning with Fatima, it's like this whole, like, other level of worry and also gratitude because I put myself in a fraction of the risk that Fatima faces every single day, and I have been truly, like, honestly freaking out about my health. So when I called to check in with Fatima, who, by the way, says she's feeling fine, I wanted to ask how she felt about people who were staying home safe and if she had been thinking about whether she'd prefer unemployment.

PAVON: (Laughter) Honestly, no, I wouldn't feel right just, you know, up and leaving. You know, I want to be here to help, you know, 'cause I know they need the help.

GONZALEZ: That's amazing. You do know that, like, you might get more money.

PAVON: Yeah. Yeah, I know (laughter).

GONZALEZ: And as for the raise...

Have you, like, walked in and been like, OK, today's the day I'm going to do it, and then, like, no, I'm not going to do it?

PAVON: Oh, yesterday I actually wanted to just kind of talk to him and be like, you know, why aren't we getting, you know, raises? But I didn't.

GONZALEZ: Wait; so you got close to almost asking?

PAVON: Yeah. Like, you know, just kind of, like, starting a conversation. Like, you know - well, you know, other places are getting, you know, more money. Like, how would he feel about it (laughter)?

GONZALEZ: What stopped you from doing it?

PAVON: I'm scared (laughter) because...

GONZALEZ: It is so hard to ask for a raise.

PAVON: Well, you know, just kind of like standing in front of your boss saying, you know, I want more money (laughter).


GONZALEZ: Even in normal times, that's not easy.

PAVON: I don't think I'll do it anytime soon.


GONZALEZ: Fatima still hasn't asked for her raise.


PAVON: Well, when I'm about to leave, I'd take my gloves off. I sanitize my hands first, then my keys and my phone.

GONZALEZ: Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Autumn Barnes.

PAVON: And then I go to my car 'cause I don't want to take any, like, you know, possible germs with me.

GONZALEZ: Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

PAVON: When I get home, my baby runs to me - 'cause she's in her walker, so she's, like, you know, like, walking in it - and I have to dodge her. I have to dodge her, and I have to go straight to the bathroom, take my clothes off and I put them in a plastic bag. So - because I just - you know, it's still that paranoia.


GONZALEZ: If you want to see a picture of Fatima and Yesenia, go to our Instagram. We're @planetmoney. We're also on Twitter and Facebook.

PAVON: I jump in the shower, take a quick shower, make sure I'm clean. And then that's when I hold her.

GONZALEZ: And, obviously, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you to all the essential workers.

PAVON: And it's just the same routine the next day. You know, I have to come in here and do the same thing over and over again.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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