Frontline Workers Are Bargaining for
Pandemic ‘Hero’ Pay

 

Dockworkers, bus drivers and meatpackers are seeking, and winning, bonuses for risking their lives during Covid-19

 

When West Coast dockworkers struck a six-year contract deal this month with a 32% pay increase, the tentative agreement came with an added benefit—$72 million for “hero bonuses” to be shared among workers for keeping cargo moving during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Labor experts say it was the latest sign that workers from seaports and transit systems to food-processing plants and hospitals are looking for, and often getting, compensation for risking their lives over three years of turmoil and hardship on the economy’s front lines.

The payments have been called hazard pay, pandemic appreciation payments and, in the case of longshore workers at West Coast ports, hero bonuses, and in general have been added to contracts along with annual wage increases, said David Pryzbylski, a labor lawyer who represents employers in fields such as mining, manufacturing and logistics.

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Recent contract negotiations mark “the first formal opportunity for unions to come and propose to employers that, ‘We’d like you to do something for these workers that worked through the pandemic,’” Pryzbylski said.

The payments highlight a rift in the economy that emerged during the pandemic, as many white-collar workers were able to work remotely while blue-collar workers, from assembly line workers to truck drivers, remained on the front lines and risked their lives and their families’ health through waves of infections. While a swath of the population has moved on from the pandemic, the clamor for compensation shows the experience is still raw for many workers.

“These demands are commonplace across all industries,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents more than 150,000 airline, railroad, transit and utility workers. “I don’t think workers are going to be moving on for quite some time.”

The TWU represents subway and bus workers in New York City, where about 110 transit employees died during the pandemic, most during the first six months of the crisis. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority in May agreed to a tentative labor deal that included a $4,000 “essential worker bonus” for 40,000 New York City transit workers.

In the private sector, labor officials and workers have pointed to the windfall of profits some companies reaped during the pandemic as consumer spending on goods surged, triggering rapid growth in global trade and a rush to fill online shopping orders.

Research group Sea-Intelligence estimated that global shipping lines’ combined operating earnings in 2022 reached $208 billion, by far a record. Danish ocean shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk alone reported nearly $31 billion in operating earnings last year, breaking the company’s record $19.67 billion operating profit set the year before.

Many frontline workers say such gains were the result of their bravery. Dockworkers in the U.K., Germany and the U.S. have disrupted operations and gone on strike during hard-fought labor talks, and argued that shipping companies made tens of billions of dollars while workers took all of the risks.

During dockworker disruptions in Southern California earlier this month, the local chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said companies’ “massive profit came at a large personal cost to these longshore workers and their families: at least 43 ILWU members lost their lives as a result of Covid-19.”

A longshore worker at California’s Port of Long Beach is inoculated in February 2021, when frontline workers were given early access to the first Covid-19 vaccines. PHOTO: LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

U.S. freight rail workers, during drawn-out talks last year, said carriers’ yearslong attempts to boost profits by cutting staff forced employees to work extra shifts during the pandemic, even when they or their co-workers were sick.

Anger is also simmering in the background as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters bargains with package delivery giant United Parcel Service, which saw package demand surge during the pandemic and reported an operating profit last year of $13.1 billion, up from $7.8 billion in 2019.

The Teamsters, which represents 330,000 UPS employees, on Thursday rejected what it called a “disrespectful package” from UPS, and said it would stop meeting with bosses until they provide a “realistic and respectful” offer. “UPS has made plenty of money,” the union said. “Our members have sacrificed everything to make them rich.”

Delivery drivers are among a swath of workers who during the pandemic found themselves classed as essential alongside first responders, doctors and nurses.

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said that helped grocery store workers as well as food processing and packing workers win wage increases of between $2 and $8 an hour for hazard pay. Those increases now are built into the union’s collective bargaining agreements as part of a base wage.

Perrone said part of the reason the wage increases have stuck is because the labor market is still tight and some people aren’t prepared to take such jobs having seen the potential risks they entail. “A lot of people said I’m not going to put myself at risk for this amount of money,” he said.

Still, Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor lawyer based in Boston, believes the added payments are the exception rather than the rule, particularly for frontline workers who aren’t unionized. She said food-delivery and ride-hail drivers as well as some package delivery drivers haven’t seen significant wage increases, let alone been offered bonuses for risks they took during the pandemic.

“I think there’s been a lot of talk about this appreciation, but when it’s come to cold, hard cash, and employers actually rewarded workers for what they did, they have fallen short quite a lot,” Liss-Riordan said.

Esther Fung contributed to this article.

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