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Essential Workers Are Over This Shit

What workers at McDonald's and Connecticut nursing homes say about the state of the labor movement after COVID.

Mike Mozart

It’s May 2021, meaning it’s been about a year since American elites decided that the pandemic was effectively over—for workers.

Since then, “hazard pay” has all but disappeared and the few localities that attempted to codify it have been sued. Teachers have been forced back to work, and Amazon pulled out all the (quite possibly illegal) stops to bust a union drive in Bessemer, AL. In recent weeks, Republican governors around the country have used the whining about the “labor shortage” as an opportunity to wipe out the federal supplement to unemployment benefits months before they’re set to expire, as the Chamber of Commerce presses Congress to kill the benefit altogether.

But even as every day brings a new example of boss sadism, we’re also getting convincing evidence that so-called “essential” workers are simply not going to put up with this shit anymore.

One example of this can be found in Connecticut, where thousands of unionized staff at more than 50 nursing homes have been working without a new contract since March 15, and 2,800 workers at 26 facilities voted to go on strike beginning Friday after management failed to meet their demands for higher wages. (The nursing homes are owned by private companies, but three-quarters of the industry’s revenue comes from the state Medicaid program. )

Nursing homes are where the coronavirus first began to rip through the U.S., and just under a third of all deaths as of April 28 were connected to nursing homes, according to the New York Times. The danger didn’t skip over the workers at these facilities; 15 SEIU members working at Connecticut nursing homes and two group home workers have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, the union told the Connecticut Post last week. Finding people willing to work at nursing homes was difficult before the pandemic started—a Reuters investigation last year found up to 40 percent of nursing homes wouldn’t have met the minimum staffing requirements in California—but it naturally became even harder as these places became pits of death and despair.

Despite that, the pay for the people who staff these homes in Connecticut starts between $13 and $15 an hour, according to the Connecticut Mirror. In a matter of a few months, the starting wage at some of these nursing homes was quite literally going to be the minimum wage, and it sure as hell wasn’t a living wage if you happen to have children. So the workers demanded a minimum wage of $20 per hour—a full 33 percent increase—as part of a Long-Term Care Workers’ Bill of Rights. They also demanded a stockpile of PPE for future pandemics, protections against short-staffing, and more.

The state’s Democratic governor, Ned Lamont, tried to talk the union down to $16.50 per hour as part of a $280 million package for nursing homes. But the union rejected what Lamont’s administration called his “final and best offer,” with SEIU 1199 president Rob Baril telling the Connecticut Mirror that the offer “falls far short of what is necessary to stabilize the workforce and provide effective care for the residents.”

“You cannot recruit people to come in and staff nursing homes at $16.50. Companies are not able to recruit people in many cases between $18 and $21 an hour. So there needs to be some continued movement,” Rabil told WSHU.

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Lamont activated the National Guard earlier this week “to support as needed the Department of Public Health in protecting the public health and safety,” but the SEIU didn’t back down. And on Thursday, the dominoes began to fall as the Lamont administration—which apparently had neither its last nor its best offer—committed to a funding increase for nursing homes while the operator of nearly a dozen of the facilities set to strike agreed to a contract that hikes the minimum wage to $20 for certified nursing assistants (and $30 for licensed practical nurses) by 2023, as well as “a pension and […] additional funding to cover health care insurance costs and wellness programs.”

Technically it’s not over yet, but the union pushed back the strike date to June, and now there’s two weeks to hammer out the details before the May 28 strike deadline for more than a dozen other facilities. And the result SEIU1199 got out of this represents a genuinely substantial win for a group of people who have been through absolute hell and back these past 14 months.

Along with nursing home employees, restaurant and fast food workers have been working at petri dishes throughout the entirety of the pandemic, and as a result have been put at a much higher risk than the national average.

There’s been a litany of horror stories out there about working at a restaurants and fast food chains during the pandemic, from horrible customers to a lack of transparency about who was getting sick to, in some cases, ignoring employee illnesses altogether. Last year, for example, dozens of McDonald’s workers in at least nine separate restaurants in the Bay Area contracted COVID-19 as workers alleged the franchises were doing nothing to keep them safe. One worker was sick with COVID-19 symptoms in May and asked if she could go home; instead, she was allegedly “ordered” to “lower her mask so she could breathe easier — and finish her shift,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

As a result of the company’s sterling safety record and reliance on starvation wages—that is, when it bothered to pay workers at all; McDonald’s settled a $26 million wage theft lawsuit last year—the world’s most profitable restaurant chain has long been targeted by Fight for $15, which began nearly a decade ago and since then has brought $15 per hour firmly into the mainstream and approximately 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But on Wednesday, the restaurant giant managed to draw some good headlines when it announced that it would raise its minimum wage for employees at company-owned stores, following in the footsteps of Chipotle earlier this week. (Don’t worry, Chipotle sucks too.)

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The company says it’s raising wages for some 36,500 workers by an average of 10 percent, to between $11 and $17 per hour at entry-level and between $15 and $20 for shift managers “based on restaurant location.” But the raise is only going into effect at a fraction of McDonald’s locations because the company itself only owns about 5 percent of the stores in the U.S., the New York Times reported. At this point, 16 states have a minimum wage of at least $11 per hour, according to the Department of Labor, and if we see Congress hike the minimum wage at all over the next two years it’s likely it’ll be to $11 per hour.

This is, for reference, a company that made $4.7 billion during a global pandemic. Fight for $15 pointed out that McDonald’s could just raise the minimum wage at all the stores it controls to $15 per hour. “All through the pandemic, these workers were called ‘essential,’ but clearly, once again, they’re being treated as disposable,” Allynn Umel, Fight for $15’s organizing director, told the Times. “Anything less than $15 an hour is an insult.”

The group is also following through with a plan to strike in 15 cities on May 19, the day before the McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting.

“The one thing that’s missing [from the shareholders meeting] is our voice,” Terrence Wise, a department manager at Kansas City McDonalds and longtime Fight for $15 leader, told Motherboard last week. “We made them that $5 billion in profit last year. There wouldn’t be shares to divide if we weren’t making burgers and McFlurries. Our message to shareholders on May 19 is you don’t have to wait on legislation. You can pay us $15 an hour now, that should be the floor.” 

Organized workers using their leverage is nothing new. But what these two very different examples from Thursday show is how the pandemic exposed low-wage work for the scam it is, something the people in those jobs have known for years. And now, as we hear talk about a return to normalcy, economic growth roaring back, and so on, the people making those starvation wages are at their breaking point. The derisive connotation of “flipping burgers” just doesn’t hold the same weight after a year in which the threat to workers’ health and safety became so transparently obvious.

A lot of people never got a lockdown. It’s long past time to pay them the living wages that they’ve always deserved.