From the immense pressure placed on workers to return to low-wage jobs to broken social safety nets that have compounded poverty, food and housing insecurity, and inadequate unemployment benefits, America’s poor and working class have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, income inequality was at its highest levels since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking the widening gap fifty years ago.

These gaps are now more stark and pronounced amid job losses in the millions, which have primarily impacted low-paying industries. Business closures have been extended, and a workforce where 40 percent of Americans didn’t have $400 in savings for emergencies before the pandemic has suffered immensely.

Coronavirus cases in California soared toward the end of June, with Los Angeles County emerging as a hot spot in the state. 

Health experts have attributed surges in coronavirus cases to several states reopening businesses too soon, with workers recalled to jobs at hotels or restaurants, where they are in constant contact with other people.

Nubia Calderon, a housekeeper at a hotel chain, returned to work at the end of June after she was furloughed when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and “non-essential” businesses were ordered to shut down. (Note: The hotel chain will remain unnamed to protect Calderon from potential retaliation.)

She feared she would catch the coronavirus, and though she was provided with masks and disinfectant, Calderon recently tested positive along with her daughter and husband. 

“Living with COVID-19 is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’m really hoping there will be a pause in reopening these hotels,” Calderon said.

The U.S. Census published a survey conducted from July 16 to July 21, 2020, in which nearly 30 million Americans reported not having enough food to eat that week. Food banks around the U.S. have struggled to meet the demand created by the pandemic and this food insecurity among Americans is expected to increase over the next few months. 

Eviction moratoriums have expired in states throughout the U.S., with up to 40 million Americans at risk of facing eviction from their homes over the next few months.

Nearly 27 million Americans lost their employer-based health insurance during the first two months of the pandemic in the U.S., according to a May 2020
report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, while health insurance companies have made record profits.

Eighty-seven million Americans were uninsured or underinsured prior to the pandemic, and 42.4 percent of Americans were making less than $15 an hour. 

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, 10.7 percent of the workforce in the U.S. had no reasonable chance of being recalled to their job prior to the pandemic. That’s 17.6 million Americans forced to find new jobs in a job market where there are currently 14 million more Americans out of work than current job openings

Employers continue to fire workers in response to prolonged closures and revenue declines

Worse, federal relief for Americans who need it most has come to an abrupt halt. Unemployment benefits—$600 per week—expired on July 26, and action to extend reduced benefits is still in limbo.

Over 25 million people and their families were impacted by the loss of these benefits, while thousands of Americans are struggling to obtain any benefits at all due to outdated systems and immense backlogs at state unemployment agencies.

Teresa Reeves, a school bus driver in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, applied for unemployment on June 1. She still hasn’t received any benefits.

“We are struggling without my pay as my fiancé is working seven days a week to keep us from getting utilities cut off and the mortgage paid. My mother and sister have helped with food and a few other things,” Reeves shared. 

Retailers employing “essential workers” initially rolled out bonuses or hazard pay bumps for such workers during the first few months of the pandemic, but these raises were cancelled over the past weeks, despite most states in the U.S. still experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Republicans object to extending expanded unemployment benefits, claiming people should not make more on unemployment than they would on the job, and that such benefits disincentivize returning to work. 

However, a July 2020 report conducted by Yale economists found there is no evidence of expanded unemployment benefits disincentivizing Americans returning to work.

Arguments against extending unemployment benefits have relied on disparaging the motives of out-of-work individuals while Americans with wealth and power have benefitted from additional tax breaks and experienced soaring net worth after taking advantage of economic conditions and demands created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Entirely eliminating the $600 per week expanded unemployment benefits will result in the loss of an estimated 5.1 million jobs and 3.7 percent in gross domestic product. If expanded benefits are cut to $200 per week as proposed by Senate Republicans, it would result in the loss of an estimated 3.4 million jobs over the next year, according to analyses conducted by the Economic Policy Institute. 

Unemployment filings are still well above 1 million workers every week. For 20 straight weeks, unemployment claims have been more than twice the worst week of the 2008 economic recession.

While coronavirus cases and deaths disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic individuals throughout the U.S., Black and Hispanic workers experience higher unemployment rates.

Workers in jobs deemed “essential” during the pandemic fell ill as outbreaks spread through their workplaces in meat processing plants, Walmart and Target stores, Amazon warehouses, grocery stores, hospitals, throughout the transportation industry, and fast food restaurants. Thousands of workers took on jobs at essential employers that hired en masse to meet surging demands, such as Amazon and Instacart.

When workers organize and protest for improvements in safety protections, they are fired after doing so. This happened at companies like Trader Joe’s, Amazon, McDonald’s, Dollar General, and UPS.

In contrast, wealthy Americans benefited from provisions in the CARES Act, including a $135 billion tax break for individuals who make at least half a million dollars annually. Multi-million dollar federal contracts were awarded for supplies like masks that were either never delivered or funded defective products.

Wall Street’s profits have soared to near-record highs in the stock market during the pandemic. Goldman Sachs reported a 41 percent increase in its revenue in the second quarter compared to 2019.

Supply agreements between pharmaceutical corporations and the federal government for coronavirus vaccines currently in development with help of federal subsidies have sent pharmaceutical stocks, such as Pfizer, soaring.

Before the pandemic, the average corporate CEO made 278 times more than the average worker, a gap that has widened significantly over the past few decades. During the first two months of the pandemic, U.S. billionaires boosted their wealth by $434 billion according to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies. 

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos set a record when his net worth jumped by $13 billion in a single day. According to Bloomberg’s billionaire index, Bezos’ net worth has increased by $72.6 billion in 2020. Elon Musk’s net worth has increased by over $40 billion during the pandemic. Mark Zuckerberg’s by $17.8 billion. The Walton Family, the controlling owners of Walmart, added $25 billion to their net worth in the past year, totaling $215 billion. 

Corporations and their executives have issued public relation announcements and campaigns praising essential workers as “heroes,” with unifying rhetoric, while only a small percentage of corporations cut salaries of CEOs and executives, and two-thirds of the corporations that did enact pay cuts for executives were only ten percent reductions of 2019 salaries, according to a survey of about 3,000 public companies conducted by compensation analytics firm, CGLytics.

Health care corporations received billions in federal bailout money, but furloughed thousands of workers while paying executives millions of dollars. 

Corporations that filed for bankruptcy protection during the pandemic, including JC Penney, Hertz, and Neiman Marcus, approved multi-million dollar payouts and bonuses to corporate executives leading up to the filings. 

Nearly 700 companies violated paid sick leave laws for workers who tested positive for coronavirus, and workers still often find themselves without pay while waiting days to receive test results to see if they have to continue quarantining or are to return to work after being exposed to the virus. 

For workers who have jobs that are calling them back, many are faced with reduced hours, pay cuts, and a high pressure work environment that includes enacting safety protocols, working full shifts while wearing a mask, with the constant fear of catching it on the job.

“At times the six-feet social distancing in the kitchen is hard because we have to cross paths. With masks on, we’re working in kitchens over 100 degrees. We’re sweating through our clothes the second we walk into our kitchen,” shared Alison Rozer, a cook at a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, who returned to work when reopenings began in June 2020. “It’s been really tough for me because I’m at high risk. (Note: The casino will remain unnamed to protect Rozer from potential retaliation.)

“I have asthma, I have cancer, I have heart issues and it makes it really hard to protect myself.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1