a dense crowd stands outside the U.S. Capitol holding signs in support for $15 minimum wage and better workers' rights
One Fair Wage President Saru Jayaraman speaks during a rally to call for addition relief for restaurants to allow them to pay workers a full minimum wage with tips, at the House Triangle of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8, 2022. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Two years ago this month, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Since then, the virus has killed over 960,000 people as well as infected nearly 80 million and counting in the U.S., prompting a public health crisis that has mobilized workers to organize for safer conditions, higher pay, and better benefits amid the increased risks.

Worker-activists are making waves on union campaigns, organizing sickouts and walkouts, or quitting en masse in a de facto declaration to employers they need better pay and benefits both during the pandemic and into the future. But although workers have advocated for federal laws that would buttress their demands by mandating things like a $15 federal minimum wage, more paid time off options, virus protections through better air filtration, and—perhaps the most adamant demand across the board—a seat at the negotiating table in order to create national standards for employers, so far federal worker-protective legislation hasn’t become part of the new normal. And workers, in their day-to-day grind, are still the ones dealing with the gaps. 

Workers left behind by Congress

“Nothing really has changed, to be honest,” said Courtenay Brown, an Amazon Fresh fulfillment center worker in New Jersey. Amazon has “gotten better at hiding and sneaking around and avoiding things.”

Her hourly wages have risen to just under $21 an hour after she started at $13.85 five years ago. Despite those increases, paid leave policies remain abysmal for Brown at 48 hours a year—fewer than five work days when accounting for 10-hour shifts, according to Brown. And as if working at the fulfillment center during massive coronavirus outbreaks wasn’t enough, Brown’s mother was diagnosed with cancer last summer, and died in September after catching COVID-19. 

“I was a complete mess,” Brown, 31, says. In the months leading up to her mother’s death, she took off some unpaid time through Amazon’s cost-savings option that permits managers to send workers home early without getting paid—known as voluntary time off.

“I was trying to spend as much time with my mom, and trying to help my dad and be there for my brothers.”

When her mother died, she took three days of paid bereavement leave and another month of unpaid time before returning to work in October. She was glad she could take that time, partly due to an empathetic boss. 

But the financial hole was brutal. 

“We’re still paying for it now,” Brown said. “Honestly, I never even got the chance to actually grieve.”

Under an emergency COVID-19 relief package in 2020, employers with 500 or fewer employees were required to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave if an employee had COVID-19, but the requirement expired at the end of 2020. 

Mandatory paid sick leave policies exist in 14 states and Washington, D.C., but the lack of a federal standard leaves it up to local agencies to inform workers about such laws to begin with. In New York City, where workers are entitled to at least 40 hours of paid sick time a year, 45% of workers knew little to nothing of the law, though it went into effect in 2014. 

In Detroit, Michigan, LaCrecha Osterman lost almost three weeks of pay from McDonald’s after she got sick with COVID-19 during the recent Omicron variant outbreak.

She makes $12.25 an hour—up from the starting wage of $11 an hour she earned seven years ago. The low pay makes caring for her family of eight a constant struggle.

“I have a family to take care of. My bills never stop,” she said. The loss of income was made that much more difficult by widespread low wages that barely allow workers to make ends meet, let alone save money for unpaid time off. Osterman, 46, has been pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage as a worker-activist with the Fight for $15 movement since 2015. The global effort started when a few hundred workers held a walkout in 2012. Since then, 26 million workers in the U.S. have gained $150 billion in raises, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates. About half of that money boosted hourly wages for workers of color or women, and a 2019 analysis found that steadily increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024 would result in raises for 38% of Black workers, among them Osterman. 

Congress has failed to pass a $15 minimum wage during the pandemic, leaving it up to individual employers to raise pay. 

“I’m not surprised at all that we haven’t reached [it],” said Osterman. Politicians look out for themselves, she says, and they may not understand the plight fast food workers face. 

“They get to enjoy [their] family without the stress of bills and where this money [will] come from, or where this [is] at, or how I’m going to feed my kids. They don’t have that struggle. They have ‘me time.’

“We don’t get that ‘me time.’ We don’t get a chance to sit down and just relax and say, ‘Everything’s OK, family. Let’s go on a trip.’ We don’t get to do that. We’re still struggling, wondering if we ever get to even go to a local beach,” said Osterman. 

Federal law also hasn’t begun to meet the needs of gig workers, whose protections are still minimal two years into the pandemic. In Washington state, lawmakers are on their way to passing a law that would establish paid sick leave and a minimum pay rate for drivers for apps such as Uber and Lyft, but it would restrict workers from being classified “employees” of the for-hire vehicle behemoths—which blocks them from certain labor protections.

Holding politicians accountable

Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of NELP, said the hold-up on changing these laws is, in part, a mismatch between the politicians and the workers they represent.

“We have a Democratic Senate. We have a Democratic president who would have signed some of this into law. And we have one or two senators who are standing in the way,” Dixon said. “Our leaders don’t reflect the population, and so they don’t reflect the concerns of the population.”

Another barrier is the “very, very deeply rooted belief that everything is about the individual” in the country, Dixon said. 

“Because we’re so obsessed with the individual effort piece, we don’t look at the systemic piece.”

President Joe Biden’s agenda mirrors many basic tenets of what workers are demanding: a $15 federal minimum wage, more affordable child care and pre-K options, and paid leave. In his State of the Union address this month, he reminded Americans of that. But it’s not clear whether those policies will come anytime soon, or whether they’ll face a repeat of the attempt to pass the Build Back Better Act that was thwarted by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. 

Cynthia Murray, a Walmart associate and a founding member at worker advocacy group United For Respect, said all elected officials should be held accountable for the inadequate action on labor rights during the pandemic.

Walmart goes “forward a step and then they take two steps back. Same way with our government.” 

She has worked at Walmart for more than two decades full-time, yet she only recently began making more than $15 an hour. She still cannot make enough money for her $85 co-payments for various health issues she faces at 65. 

Murray, in Maryland, and Osterman, in Detroit, added that when their employers don’t pay them enough to live on, they’re forced to turn to the state for government assistance. “If we don’t have money to spend, then how do you boost the economy? You can’t,” Murray said. 

Workers have been fighting for $15 an hour for so long that Murray says even that demand should be increased. She also wants to see hourly retailers on Walmart’s board to advocate on behalf of the 1.6 million U.S. associates who keep the company running. 

Walmart spokesperson Jimmy Carter said that the company has been “continuously raising pay for our frontline associates,” and that the average hourly pay is $16.40. 

At Murray’s location, the starting rate is now $15 an hour; across Maryland, it ranges from $14 to $17, according to Carter. Walmart’s minimum wage across the country was bumped to $12 an hour last fall. McDonald’s didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Amazon declined to comment.

Despite the lack of federal change, Saru Jayaraman, the president of restaurant workers’ rights group One Fair Wage, feels wage policies will start to shift drastically on a state level this coming year.

“The first step was workers leaving. The second step is employers raising wages in response. The third step is going to be policy that follows both the workers and employers,” Jayaraman said. In response to difficulties drawing workers back to the industry, she says restaurants are raising their wages well above minimum wage, not including tips—to $20, $25, or even $50 an hour. “I have never seen anything like this in 20 years of organizing.” 

A ballot initiative in Washington, D.C., to bring the tipped minimum wage up to the same level as the regular minimum wage will be on the ballot in June. D.C. voters already approved the measure in 2018, but it was overturned by city council members in D.C.—which Jayaraman blames on lobbying by the powerful National Restaurant Association. 

Jayaraman expects it to pass on the ballot again, and with new city council members, she’s hopeful this time the policy change will stick. Just last month, One Fair Wage committed $25 million to organize for $15 an hour plus tips for tipped workers across 25 states by 2026. 

“It’s been a hard fight, and there’s never been a moment like this where there’s an opening and things could actually move,” Jayaraman said. “And it’s happening because [for] so many workers, it was revealed to them how the system was so dysfunctional, it not only didn’t allow them to live and survive, it also put them at severe risk.”

Sydney Pereira

Sydney Pereira is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She covers the intersection between social justice and health, labor, and climate change. Her work has been published in Gothamist/WNYC, Newsweek, Patch,...