“We stay here for you; please stay home for us.” These ten words have been trending on social media, news platforms, and billboards across the country, reminding us all that essential workers are bearing the brunt of this pandemic. Health care workers, trash collectors, cashiers, Uber drivers, gas station workers, and many others are care workers; they provide for the rest of society 24 hours a day, 365 days a year whether it be in a hospital or a grocery store. Unfortunately, it took a worldwide pandemic for them to gain the spotlight, and even now the government is unwilling to dish out its appreciation in the form of green currency.
Though their jobs are considered ‘essential’, the workers currently running the economy are getting the short end of the stick. Most get paid minimum wage while being disposable resources to the majority of employers as the supply of these jobs is much lower than the demand. Even during a pandemic, wages have remained stagnant as the necessity of essential labor has increased. With the virus becoming more widespread by the hour, many essential workers have been dealing with both a financial burden and rising safety concerns. Though risking their health is an inevitable part of the job, the monetary shortage can easily be alleviated by working toward a redistribution of wealth.
A combination of factors has contributed to the gradual dissipation of the middle class including deregulation of businesses, job outsourcing, and a plummeting income tax for the extreme upper class. Some of these issues have worsened under the Trump administration for the sake of remaining competitive in a modern global economy.
For example, the Trump administration cut the top individual tax rate down from 39.6% to 37%. A bill enacted in 2018 went so far as to cut down corporate tax rates from 35% to 21% according to TheBalance. Shifting the tax burden has benefitted large businesses at the expense of essential workers though the majority of Americans do not belong to the top 1, 2 or even 10%.
Working towards a narrowed pay gap is a long term goal which the nation should begin striving towards, but legislation takes months, even years to reverse, and essential workers need help now. With funding tight and many people out of a job, it is easy to argue that a conglomeration of underpaid workers is inevitable amid a substantial lack of resources. Alas, the central issue does not involve a lack of resources but rather a well-intentioned, misguided effort by the government to use them correctly.
The stimulus bill instituted by Congress in early April increased unemployment insurance benefits by $600 per week, the same as working 40 hours a week for $15 an hour, according to Bloomberg Opinion. The thought process behind this bill is easy to follow; with businesses shutting down across the nation, many workers need some form of cash flow to fall back on and a stimulus bill resolves the matter at hand. Despite this, the negative consequences of enacting such a bill far outweigh the positives.
The stimulus bill provides the unemployed with close to minimum wage, but only if an individual had been laid off. This is extremely unfair to minimum wage workers forced to risk their personal well being in grocery stores and gas stations because their employers cannot afford to let them go.
To compensate, many companies have tried to increase wages, but their first priority is keeping customers happy. If pay increases, prices will follow, and many consumers are suffering economically as well.
Additionally, there is no limit on annual income to qualify for the stimulus check. This means that unemployed workers from high-paying jobs are receiving money even if the amount is inconsequential to their savings.
Beyond this, the extra $600 are not sustainable for those who need it, such as nonessential restaurant servers. Paying for rent, groceries, and other necessities on a minimum wage is close to impossible in America.
The government has also instituted the $2.2 trillion CARES Act which promises $1,200 to both the unemployed and employed. Though there is a cutoff for those who are able to receive the money, it is simply too high. A head of household making as much as $136,500 is eligible for a small part of the stimulus check even though an essential worker would need it more.
If we want to start reducing the pay gap between essential and nonessential workers, the first step is Congress going back to the drawing board and formulating a bill which will increase pay without any unintended consequences. For example, making qualifications for stimulus checks more rigid would effectively allocate money from those who do not desperately need it to those who do.
However, some believe a stimulus bill is unnecessary.
A commonly held misconception is that the economy is better left alone, and therefore Congress’ efforts on a stimulus bill are going to waste. With a worldwide pandemic, the stock market is expected to fall and take salaries right along with it. After a vaccine is found, the stock market will pick itself back up and wages will follow suit. Unfortunately, this possibility is highly unlikely and even a ‘normal economy’ includes a substantial, widening pay gap between the upper and lower class.
Minimum wage workers have always worked hard despite lackluster rewards. The hardships many currently face, however, may push them to the limit. If these workers go on strike and refuse to carry out their essential duties, the economy will suffer more. The national bank has already been hit hard by COVID-19. If it comes out of this pandemic only to be knocked down by a worker’s strike, it may never recover.
As one retail worker put it in an interview with Vox, “Honestly, I kind of just wish if we’re considered essential, maybe we’d be paid essential.” All across the nation, essential workers are bagging groceries, delivering mail, and curing the sick while the rest of society remains at home. America runs on minimum wage work and it took a pandemic to realize it. Words of kindness can only do so much; if America wants to keep running, the pay gap between rich and poor has to be something this nation is running from, not towards.