Kim Brown* used to love her job at a Publix grocery store in Georgia. She enjoyed meeting new people and always went above and beyond to help customers who needed extra support. “If I can help you, I will,” she said. “That’s just the way I was raised.”
But living under the lingering threat of coronavirus, Kim worries that her health, and even her life, are in jeopardy every time she walks into the store.
At first, Kim and her fellow essential employees were not allowed to wear masks. Now there are more physical protections in place, but she is scared her coworkers may come to work sick and spread the disease because they need the paycheck.
Georgia does not require employers to provide paid sick leave, and while Publix is offering it to all employees who test positive, tests aren't easy to come by and you might be contagious before you can get tested.
Last month, we along with Schmidt Futures and a diverse group of funding partners, launched the Families and Workers Fund to support essential workers like Kim—as well as the now more than 33.5 million people who have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits in the last month.
The fund aims to deliver both immediate relief to those who need it most and ensure long-lasting impact by supporting policy and advocacy efforts that will lead to a fair and just economic recovery.
Providing essential workers actual support
When laid-off workers don’t have enough money to afford basics like food, rent, and medicine, the fastest way to fix that problem is to give them more money. It’s a solution that’s been applied—and proven—in countries and communities across the globe.
That’s why we’re supporting the cash relief funds at organizations like National Domestic Workers Alliance and National Day Laborers Organizing Network—they are getting money directly to the most vulnerable workers in our economy, including care providers and immigrant workers who lack stable employment.
The government’s emergency response, while historic and a critical first step, is still insufficient to meet the moment and the needs of workers. Supporting cash relief funds is crucial to fill the immense void.
The bipartisan federal relief package, named the CARES Act, included a one-time check of up to $1,200 per person and expanded unemployment insurance. While this is a huge stride, it won’t be enough to prevent millions from falling into or deeper into poverty, especially when the package excludes some of the most marginalized, such as many immigrants.
Community nonprofits and worker organizations shouldn’t have to fill in the gaps, but they are. And when they provide a check, it's more than just money in the bank; it’s a way for people to connect with others who share their challenges and want to mobilize for a better future.
Worker voices are essential for a just recovery
Coronavirus is exposing not just the devastating inequalities at the root of the US economic system, but also the false narratives that have allowed them to fester. Pervasive beliefs that low-wage work is not essential and unemployment and poverty are the results of personal failings are being hotly contested.
Across the political spectrum, leaders are celebrating low-wage workers and thanking them for risking their lives to keep our families fed, and there is a growing conversation about how paid sick leave and enhanced workplace health and safety practices actually make companies more resilient, rather than less competitive.
But memories can be short. Prior to this pandemic, 53 million Americans, accounting for 44 percent of all workers ages 18 to 64, received median pay of less than $18,000 a year. The numbers are even worse for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups—black women earn 61 cents to every dollar white men make.
We must ensure that this brief moment in time, when the nation is finally focused on the essential role that low-wage workers have always played, actually translates into a better future at the end of this pandemic.
That’s at the center of the Families and Workers Fund, a $20-million effort to support low-wage workers and their families and keep them from falling into poverty during this crisis. For this effort, we joined forces with a motley crew of other funders who don’t normally work together—Abigail Disney, Open Society Foundations, Annie E. Casey Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, JPB Foundation, Morgan Stanley, and Amalgamated Foundation. We all share a belief that America can come out of the coronavirus with a healthier and more equitable economy that uplifts all workers.
In the long term, we aim to see low-wage workers and their allies shape a recession response that leaves them and their families better off and ultimately reimagines the narratives and rules that have long enabled our economy to produce so much inequality.
In the last month, Kim and more than 13,000 people have signed a petition on Coworker.org requesting hazard pay for Publix employees. This idea is also gaining traction in Washington. “[W]e come to work and put our lives on the line just like the doctors and the nurses. If I didn’t get up and go, where y’all gonna come shop?”
Coronavirus may be naturally occuring, but economic crises are human-made and human-managed. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make us realize how indispensable low-wage workers are. Fighting coronavirus is a collective act—and so is fighting the inequality that holds millions of people back from their full potential. The costs of both should be shared by all of us.
By getting money to low-wage workers now and ensuring their voices and needs are central to the recovery that’s to come, we have a shot at building a more equitable, healthier economy. That would be the ultimate thank you to the essential workers risking their lives for us every day.
*Kim Brown’s name was changed to protect her identity.
This piece was originally published in Business Insider.