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SAN FRANCISCO — One by one, they left. Some quit. Others were fired. All were Black.The 15 people worked at Coinbase, the most valuable U.S. cryptocurrency start-up, where they represented roughly three-quarters of the Black employees at the 600-person company. Before leaving in late 2018 and early 2019, at least 11 of them informed the human resources department or their managers about what they said was racist or discriminatory treatment, five people with knowledge of the situation said.One of the employees was Alysa Butler, 25, who worked in recruiting. During her time at Coinbase, she said, she told her manager several times about …
With coronavirus cases rising across the country, retailers are preparing for another rush from shoppers worried about new lockdowns and pandemic shortages.
But many retail workers, heralded as heroes during the first wave of the pandemic, are not being provided with the same level of bonuses and raises this time, even as the health risks for them increase. Even as some companies have announced new hazard pay in recent days, some industry observers say many retailers are not sharing enough of the profits they have earned during the pandemic with their workers, but are instead benefiting shareholders through stock buybacks.
Amazon, which said last month that its quarterly profit had increased nearly 200 percent, ended its $2-an-hour pay raise for workers earlier this year and then provided a pandemic-related bonus in June, but a spokeswoman said no new hazard pay was planned.
Walmart, which reported another big increase in quarterly sales on Tuesday, had paid a series of special cash bonuses, but the company has not raised wages broadly as a way to reward workers during the pandemic.
The grocery chain Kroger offered raises at the start of the pandemic and bonuses through mid-June, but those have ended. Employees nationwide have staged protests outside stores asking Kroger to reinstate the pay, especially given its booming business — sales are soaring, and it recently said its 2021 business results “will be higher than we would have expected prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.” This week, the company told workers that they would receive discounts at its fuel centers and a $100 store credit as a “holiday appreciation.”
On Wednesday, Lowe’s said in its quarterly earnings report that it had already paid more than $800 million in pandemic-related benefits to employees. At the same time, the company said it expected to buy back about $3 billion of its own stock in the fourth quarter, after spending about $1 billion on buybacks and dividends in the third quarter.
“We ask workers with the least to sacrifice the most, and they are not even getting compensated in return,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who is preparing a report that ranks which largest retailers have been most generous to their workers during the pandemic. “The companies have the money to do this.”
The issue of hazard pay for retail workers reflects the harsh reality of the pandemic economy — a case of shifting supply and demand. In March and April, when retailers were overrun with customers and workers were calling in sick or quitting, the companies needed to give incentives to employees to stay on the job.
But when the additional unemployment benefits, totaling $600 a week, expired at the end of July, many more Americans needed jobs, making it easier for retailers to attract and retain workers.
The public attention has also waned, as news media accounts of workers getting sick from the virus faded and focus turned to protests over police violence and the election. “The headlines have moved on,” Ms. Kinder said.
But the risks to retail workers have not. As the number of new infections hits daily records, retail workers must spend hours inside, dealing with customers who may refuse to wear masks or wear them incorrectly. A large part of this burden has fallen on female, Black and Hispanic employees, who make up a sizable proportion of retail workers.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents nearly one million grocery workers, said that 108 of its grocery workers had died as a result of Covid-19 and that more than 16,300 had been infected or exposed to the virus.
Some leaders in government have tried to step in and compensate retail workers for the risks they are taking. But efforts to include hazard pay for frontline workers in the various rounds of federal stimulus bills have all failed, including a proposal from Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican.
Calling it “Patriot Pay,” Mr. Romney had proposed that essential workers receive raises of up to $12 an hour from May through July. That was meant to make up for any difference between what workers would earn on the job and what they were receiving in additional unemployment assistance. Mr. Romney’s proposal was never approved, and Congress remains at a stalemate over a new round of stimulus.
There may be other issues preventing retailers from continuing to offer pandemic pay raises. Even temporary raises, ostensibly limited to the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, can set expectations for higher pay permanently. Some analysts say retailers opt for bonuses instead of raises because they can be given out at random and do not normalize higher pay.
But a few big retailer have increased wages. Best Buy, which offered “appreciation pay” to hourly frontline workers starting in March, raised its starting rate for U.S. employees to $15 an hour on Aug. 2, the day after the additional pay was set to end.
Home Depot said on Tuesday that it would transition from paying a temporary weekly bonus to associates in stores and warehouses to permanently increasing wages for its hourly frontline workers. It’s not clear how generous those raises will prove for each worker. The company, which noted that average wages varied across the country, said it would invest $1 billion on the raises on an annualized basis.
The momentum behind higher pay in the retail industry appears to have picked up during the pandemic. Unions representing retail workers say they feel emboldened to push for significant pay increases as they enter various contract negotiations over the coming year, bolstered by what they see as the shopping public’s new appreciation for low-wage workers.
In Florida, where President Trump won this month, more than 60 percent of voters supported a measure that will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour from $8.56 by 2026. And multiple polls conducted during the pandemic show growing support among Democrats and Republicans to raise the minimum wage.
Pay bumps tied to the pandemic have been relatively modest, but raising wages a few dollars an hour can amount to a large increase in a retail worker’s take-home pay. Kroger gave a $2-an-hour pay raise from the end of March to mid-May and gave employees a bonus of $150 or $300, based on their part- or full-time status. In May, it offered a separate bonus of $200 or $400.
Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, a roughly 370-store discount chain that has seen its sales and earnings boom, said on a recent earnings call that it stopped its “premium pay” of $1.50 an hour for frontline associates at the end of the second quarter and would replace it with some type of monthly “discretionary bonus.”
Absent federal action, some states have allocated funds that they received as part of the giant stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, to frontline workers.
In Vermont, retailers are invited to apply for state grants that can benefit their workers who have stayed on the job during the pandemic. Companies like CVS and Shaw’s, a regional grocery chain, have signed up for the grants, according to the state. The employers pass the money through to the workers, acting only as conduits.
But some retailers — wary of being perceived as accepting aid in place of struggling businesses — have blocked their workers from accessing the money, baffling state lawmakers.
Tim Ashe, president of the Vermont Senate, who proposed the grants, said it meant many local workers would go without a substantial check — totaling as much as $2,000.
“Imagine being told by your manager that corporate won’t fill out the paperwork that could get you $2,000,” Mr. Ashe said.
Dollar General, which reported $1 billion in operating profit in the second quarter, is one retailer that is turning down the state’s offer to compensate its employees for working through the pandemic. Mr. Ashe said the state official overseeing the program had told him that Dollar General “seemed completely uninterested.”
A company spokeswoman initially said Dollar General would not apply for the grants because “we believe these limited funds should support the small-business community,” but then said on Wednesday that the company was looking to apply.
Dollar General said on Tuesday that it had spent $73 million on employee bonuses and planned to spend an additional $100 million this year, twice what it had initially planned.
“To demonstrate our ongoing gratitude and support for our employees directly serving our customers and communities during this pandemic, we are proud to double our initial plans for second-half bonuses,” Dollar General’s chief executive, Todd Vasos, said in a statement.
By comparison, Dollar General spent $602 million repurchasing its stock in the second quarter and has authorized the purchase of an additional $2 billion in stock.
Walmart, which operates six stores in Vermont employing hundreds of workers, had originally declined to apply for the grants. Like Dollar General, Walmart initially told Vermont officials that the money should go to smaller businesses. But on Tuesday, a Walmart spokeswoman said the company had changed its mind.
“After further discussions with local and state officials, we’re pleased to hear there was sufficient funding to provide bonuses to all small and medium-sized businesses in Vermont and that there are remaining funds for employees of larger companies,” the spokeswoman said.
In total, Walmart has spent $1.1 billion on bonuses rewarding its employees who worked during the pandemic. Full-time workers have received a series of three cash payments of up to $300 each. Walmart paid workers a bonus in September related to store performance, but has not indicated whether any additional bonuses related to the pandemic would be granted.
A surge of Covid-19 cases this fall has brought reports of new challenges in getting coronavirus tests. But for employers, testing availability and turnaround times do not appear to be the main obstacles.
A survey by Arizona State University and the World Economic Forum, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, has found that companies most frequently cited cost and complexity as the biggest deterrents to testing their workers.
The findings, based on responses from 1,141 facilities at over 1,100 companies worldwide from September through late October, are consistent with earlier reports suggesting that many employers have been able to obtain testing relatively quickly if they absorb the expense. In many cases, however, employers have indicated that they feel the benefits do not outweigh the costs.
Over all, 17 percent of the facilities surveyed worldwide said they were testing workers. At least half of those facilities were doing so even for workers without symptoms, and roughly half were testing workers at least once a week.
At facilities that were not testing, only 15 percent said availability was an issue, while 28 percent cited cost, 22 percent cited complexity and 16 percent said it would take too long to receive the results. (Those surveyed could select more than one reason.) The numbers for the United States, where more than 700 of the facilities were located, were similar to the overall results.
Mara Aspinall, a professor at Arizona State’s College of Health Solutions who helped oversee the study, said the results indicated that companies were figuring out how to get testing done if it was essential. For the others, she said, there was simply “a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to how tests work” in the absence of a national testing strategy, and the potential expense loomed large as well.
Ms. Aspinall, who is also an adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation, said she thought workplace testing would become far more widespread next year as employers seek to bring more people back to work.
Raj Behal, the chief quality officer of One Medical, which provides primary health care services to large employers like Google, agreed that the lack of cheap tests had played a major role in limiting uptake.
“In our experience, companies that need to bring their employees in because they are essential or critical workers are regularly screening and testing employees for Covid,” said Dr. Behal, whose company has helped clients arrange testing and was not involved in the survey. “In general, though, cost may be the single most important barrier to widespread testing in the U.S.”
P.C.R. tests, which are generally considered the most accurate but typically require laboratory processing, cost roughly $100 in the United States. Medicare typically covers Covid tests, but many private insurance plans do not.
A spokeswoman for One Medical said the average turnaround time for the tests was two to three days in most markets. “We anticipate an increase in testing demand around the holidays, and have increased our testing capacity accordingly,” the spokeswoman added.
The survey found that companies with 25 workers or fewer were least likely to test, with only 8 percent doing so. About 40 percent of companies with 1,001 to 5,000 workers were testing, as were nearly 60 percent of companies with over 5,000 workers.
Among the biggest companies that didn’t test, cost was not a commonly cited obstacle. Those companies were much more likely to be discouraged by the complexity of testing their large work forces, which one-third cited.
Confused by the terms about coronavirus testing? Let us help:
- Antibody: A protein produced by the immune system that can recognize and attach precisely to specific kinds of viruses, bacteria, or other invaders.
- Antibody test/serology test: A test that detects antibodies specific to the coronavirus. Antibodies begin to appear in the blood about a week after the coronavirus has infected the body. Because antibodies take so long to develop, an antibody test can’t reliably diagnose an ongoing infection. But it can identify people who have been exposed to the coronavirus in the past.
- Antigen test: This test detects bits of coronavirus proteins called antigens. Antigen tests are fast, taking as little as five minutes, but are less accurate than tests that detect genetic material from the virus.
- Coronavirus: Any virus that belongs to the Orthocoronavirinae family of viruses. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2.
- Covid-19: The disease caused by the new coronavirus. The name is short for coronavirus disease 2019.
- Isolation and quarantine: Isolation is the separation of people who know they are sick with a contagious disease from those who are not sick. Quarantine refers to restricting the movement of people who have been exposed to a virus.
- Nasopharyngeal swab: A long, flexible stick, tipped with a soft swab, that is inserted deep into the nose to get samples from the space where the nasal cavity meets the throat. Samples for coronavirus tests can also be collected with swabs that do not go as deep into the nose — sometimes called nasal swabs — or oral or throat swabs.
- Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): Scientists use PCR to make millions of copies of genetic material in a sample. Tests that use PCR enable researchers to detect the coronavirus even when it is scarce.
- Viral load: The amount of virus in a person’s body. In people infected by the coronavirus, the viral load may peak before they start to show symptoms, if symptoms appear at all.
Biotechnology and technology companies were among the most likely to test workers, with 37 percent and 29 percent doing so, even as they were also among the most likely to require employees to work remotely.
Manufacturing was also among the industries where testing was relatively common, with 20 percent of the facilities saying they did so. By contrast, only 10 percent of professional services firms, like accounting and law practices, said they were testing. And sectors in which rank-and-file workers tend to be poorly paid and can’t work from home, such as restaurants and hotels and casinos, had even lower rates.
Zack Cooper, an economist at the Yale School of Public Health who has advised the Rockefeller Foundation, said he had some concern that a survey of this kind could be biased, because companies that did not respond might differ from companies that did so. But he said that in general he was not surprised by the results, and that the survey highlighted the federal government’s failure to recognize the widespread benefits of testing and to subsidize it accordingly. Mr. Cooper had no role in the survey.
There was one area where U.S.-based facilities diverged significantly from those elsewhere: Only 37 percent carried out contact tracing for workers testing positive, versus more than half of facilities abroad.
“A number of countries outside the United States have national contact-tracing systems, apps that are highly recommended or in some countries required for all adults to download,” Ms. Aspinall of Arizona State said. “Clearly that isn’t the case here.”
Sarah Kliff contributed reporting.