As therampages across the U.S., retail workers are facing down holiday crowds and harried shoppers stocking up for potential future lockdowns. The pandemic has proved nothing if not profitable for major retailers, including Amazon and Walmart, which have booked record sales this year. Now they're being urged to share some of the profits with their workforce.
Retailing giants have come under fire in recent days from labor and advocacy groups, who argue that the jobs of those dubbed "essential workers" remain just as risky as they were earlier in the year, when many retailers boosted pay for frontline employees during the public health crisis.
"A number of companies at the beginning of the pandemic instituted hazard pay. They've almost all stopped," U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, told a Brookings Institution forum this week. "It's pretty simple — workers don't need a public relations campaign, they need better pay and better protections on the job."
The two retailing giants could have quadrupled the hazard pay given their workers and still earned a bigger profit than last year, according to research by Brookings, a liberal-leaning nonprofit public policy group.
Amazon and Walmart earned a combined extra $10.9 billion compared to last year, up 53% and 45%, respectively, Brookings fellow Molly Kinder and her colleagues found. Meanwhile, their research showed, Amazon workers earned just 95 cents more an hour since the pandemic began, and Walmart workers earned 63 cents more, up only 6%.
An Amazon spokesperson dismissed as "flawed" the findings by Brookings, saying it failed to offer "an accurate picture of wages, benefits and career opportunities that exist for employees at Amazon."
Amazon's starting pay of $15 an hour is higher than other retailers lauded by Brookings, the company noted.
Walmart did not offer comment as to why it had discontinued workers' raises during the pandemic.
Dollar General could have given its frontline workers 10 times the amount of COVID-19 bonuses it distributed in the spring and still earned more profit than the prior year, the Brookings analysis found. The amount the chain spent on compensation in the first half of the year was just one-eighth of the money it spent on buying back stock in the midst of the pandemic, according to Brookings.
The chain, which operates 16,720 stores in 46 states, recently said it would spend $50 million on "appreciation bonuses" for frontline workers in the fourth quarter, bringing the overall amount it spent on additional employee pay this year to $173 million. A spokesperson for the Tennessee-based retailer, which employs about 157,000, declined to break out what the average worker would receive.
A separate analysis by Public Citizen yielded similar conclusions. It found that while the top 15 U.S.-based household retailers saw a combined $14.6 billion increase in profits in fiscal 2020 compared to the year-ago period, nine had still halted extra pay for workers.
Among large retailers, Best Buy, Target and Home Depot have provided the most COVID-19 compensation to employees, together paying their frontline workers an average of $2.53 extra an hour since March, Brookings found.
In the same vein, Public Citizen lauded Costco, Lowe's, Home Depot and Publix for continuing to provide employees with ongoing extra pay. Target has paid bonuses to hourly frontline workers twice, most recently in October.
50k more grocery workers to get retroactive pay
Still, some grocery workers have notched recent wins.
The United Food and Commercial Workers on Wednesday said it had reached an agreement with ShopRite to retroactively pay nearly 50,000 employees in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York an additional dollar for every hour worked between July 26 and August 22. ShopRite also agreed to meet union leaders to discuss further hazard pay if future coronavirus outbreaks result in orders to close all but essential businesses, the UFCW said.
Those who put in 40-hour work weeks during the four-week period can now expect an extra $160 before taxes, a help to workers ahead of the holidays as well as a boost to morale, some union workers said.
"This hazard pay will not only help us cover our holiday expenses, but they go a long way towards helping us feel valued for the service we provide," Shirley Carey, 59, who has worked at a ShopRite in Milford, Connecticult, for seven years, said in the union statement.
"Hundreds of UFCW members across the country, and dozens in Connecticut have already contracted COVID. There is definitely an increased risk that we get sick and then expose our families," Sam Seeley, 33, an eight-year employee at a Garafalo ShopRite in Stratford, offered. "My coworkers deserve it," he added of the extra pay ahead of the holidays.
ShopRite had begun paying an extra two bucks an hour in hazard pay on March 22, then cut it in half to $1 an hour on July 5, with the extra pay eliminated August 2, the UFCW noted.
The UFCW announced a similar pact covering 56,000 Stop & Shop workers across New England, New York and New Jersey in late September, with the grocer confirming its agreement to provide premium pay equal to 10% of wages earned from July 5 through August 22, excluding paid time off. "This is in addition to the initial 10% pay increase that we proudly offered between March and July to recognize the incredible efforts of our associates to serve our communities throughout the pandemic," a spokesperson emailed.
At least 350 UFCW members have died of COVID-19,, according to the union, which represents 835,000 grocery store workers at major chains including Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons and Kroger. More than 17,400 grocery workers have been infected or exposed to the virus, the union added.
The UFCW and labor advocacy group United for Respect have each called for ongoing hazard pay for retail workers as well as a voice in safety protocols.
CBS News' Irina Ivanova contributed reporting.