Why We Must Protect Essential Workers From Billionaire Pandemic Profiteers

There are few scenes more sordid than the surging wealth gains of the world’s billionaire class during an unprecedented pandemic when millions have lost their lives, health, wealth…

There are few scenes more sordid than the surging wealth gains of the world’s billionaire class during an unprecedented pandemic when millions have lost their lives, health, wealth and livelihoods.

As the country heads into another wave of Covid-19 infections, billionaires, and corporations should do more to protect their essential workers going into this winter of pain.

A new report—titled “Billionaire Wealth vs. Community Health: Protecting Essential Workers from Pandemic Profiteers by Bargaining for the Common Good, the Institute for Policy Studies, and United for Respect—shines a light on the “Delinquent Dozen.”

As of November 17, 2020, the wealth of 647 U.S. billionaires has increased almost $960 billion since mid-March, the beginning of the pandemic, approaching $1 trillion in wealth increases. Since March, there are 33 new billionaires in the U.S.

Ten billionaire owners of companies with delinquent protections for their essential workers have a combined wealth of $433 billion. They are Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Alice, Rob and Jim Walton (Walmart), Apoorva Mehta (Instacart), John Tyson (Tyson Foods), Steve Schwarzman (Blackstone), Henry Kravis and George Roberts (KKR), and Steve Feinberg (Cerberus). 

Since March 18th, 2020, their combined personal wealth has increased $127.5 billion, an increase of 42 percent.  Surely they and their companies can afford to provide hazard pay, paid medical leave, and adequate PPE protections to their frontline essential workers.

“Frontline workers are the ones actually creating wealth, only to have it directed into the pockets of the billionaires.”

We are witnessing a criminal tragedy as wealthy billionaires, sequestered in protective bubbles and private jets, are dispatching essential workers into the line of infection fire with inadequate shields and protections. 

Those on the front lines are disproportionately female and people of color, particularly Black workers, and nearly a quarter live in families struggling below the poverty line. Those frontline workers are the ones actually creating wealth, only to have it directed into the pockets of the billionaires.

John H. Tyson, the billionaire owner of Tyson Foods, has seen his personal wealth increase over $600 million since the beginning of the pandemic as an estimated 11,000 Tyson workers have been infected with COVID-19.

The wealth of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has increased over $70 billion since mid-March while an estimated 20,000 Amazon workers have been infected with COVID-19.

Three owners of Walmart—Rob, Jim, and Alice Walton—have seen their combined personal wealth increase over $48.2 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. Their total combined wealth is now over $211 billion. In 2018, Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillion made 1,118 times the pay of Walmart’s median worker. Yet Walmart refuses to provide hazard pay to its workers.

Instacart’s profits have surged during the pandemic thanks to its essential workers on the frontlines of retail shopping for secluding customers.  CEO founder Apoorva Mehta became an instant billionaire in June 2020 and his wealth is now $1.6 billion.  That will increase dramatically when Instacart goes public in early 2021, with a current valuation of $30 billion.

Yet Instacart has over-hired 300,000 new workers and failed to provide sufficient protections. “I have gone from making a reasonable income to questioning my ability to put food on the table, all while Instacart rolls out more and more public statements to fool consumers,” said Shenaya Birkel, an Instacart employee. “While our economy is at risk due to quarantine, Instacart is cashing in more than ever. They had a huge opportunity to prove they care about the essential workers who do what their corporate employees would never do: shop in stores with COVID-19 floating around everywhere. Instead, they refused to offer hazard pay, over-hired, and actually decreased pay. It’s time we get treated according to the risk we are facing every day.”

Also included are private equity firms Blackstone, KKR, Cerberus Capital, BC Partners, and Leonard Green Partners. The owners of these firms have seen their fortunes surge. Unfortunately for all of us, private equity has moved into health care, grocery provision, and pet supply.  Their business model of extreme cost cutting and debt loading in order to squeeze profits out of already profitable companies is fundamentally incompatible with the needs of protecting workers and communities during a pandemic.

Several private equity firms that own or have large ownership stakes in multiple companies with essential workers. They could use their significant power and wealth to direct corporate managers to protect essential workers, but they have fallen short.

Private equity giant Blackstone owns TeamHealth, a company that early in the pandemic demoted a whistleblower doctor who went public about the company’s lack of COVID-19 safety precautions and aggressive cost-cutting. Blackstone has saddled TeamHealth with debt and cost-cutting during the pandemic, resulting in a major downgrade of the company’s bond rating. Blackstone founder and CEO Steve Schwartzman has seen his personal wealth increase $4.1 billion since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cerberus Capital owns a number of companies with frontline essential workers including Albertsons and Safeway supermarkets. Steve Feinberg, the billionaire cofounder of the private equity firm, has seen his personal wealth increase $276 million since the beginning of the pandemic. Safeway markets had initial hazard pay that ended in June.  Since then, COVID-19 infections have increased 161 percent in Safeway stores.

The authors of the report call on corporations to immediately provide, regularly replace, and upgrade high quality personal protective equipment (PPE) at no cost to all their essential workers. Employers should implement hazard pay of at least $5 per hour and provide substantial paid sick leave benefits for workers to stay home when ill, quarantine when exposed, and care for sick loved ones.

When billionaire owners and CEOs fail to fulfill their responsibility during this extraordinary time, it is the duty of elected officials and Congress to step in and enact public policies to protect essential workers and their communities.  President-elect Biden should establish a Presidential Commission on Essential Workers with on-the-ground, diverse worker representation.  Congress should pass the Essential Workers’ Bills of Rights developed in collaboration with workers’ organizations at the local, state, and federal levels.

Lawmakers should also address the problems of pandemic profiteering and billionaire enrichment.  Congress should levy an emergency pandemic wealth tax on billionaires to raise revenue for health care and aid to localities.  Congress should also establish a Pandemic Profiteering Oversight Committee that goes beyond oversight of stimulus funds.

The contrast between billionaires making no sacrifice while their essential workers make the ultimate sacrifice, risking their health, their families, and their livelihoods is both unethical and corrupt.


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