Biden Must Stay Faithful To a Strong Workers’ Rights Agenda. Essential Workers Deserve It

The healing cannot truly start until our country champions and prioritizes the lives and dignity of low-wage essential workers—a group in which workers of color are overrepresented.

Biden Must Stay Faithful To a Strong Workers’ Rights Agenda. Essential Workers Deserve It
Grocery workers during a demonstration in June 2011. (Rachel Fishman / Flickr)

Joe Biden campaigned on the promise that he would “heal the soul of the nation,” and it was this message that I repeated in my thousands of calls to mostly Black voters across Georgia in November, and again in January. We worked hard for this win, and as we turn the page to this new presidency, we’re all ready for the healing to begin.

After far-right insurrectionists took over the Capitol building, ransacked offices, and threatened lawmakers in an attack on our country that left five dead, I watched the news footage showing essential workers, mostly people of color, cleaning up in the aftermath. The scene was all too familiar.

As a former Walmart associate, as a woman, and as a Black American, I know that the work we do is essential, and the healing cannot truly start until our country champions and prioritizes the lives and dignity of low-wage essential workers—a group in which workers of color are overrepresented. That is why as president, Biden must stay faithful to a strong workers’ rights agenda, despite calls for compromising with Republicans and some Democrats’ own cozy relationship with big corporations.  

Walmart is the largest private employer in the country, and as its 1.5 million associates are ensuring people have groceries, prescriptions and essential goods during the pandemic, they are still not receiving adequate hazard pay, safety protections, or consistent paid time to quarantine or recover from COVID. Walmart continues to cut hours during the pandemic—all while workloads often increase.

I’ve talked to Walmart associates who were severely sick with COVID-19 who never received pay for their 14-day leave. Others worked elbow-to-elbow with colleagues who were sick with COVID-19, but their managers refused to notify them to quarantine safely, so the virus spread to family members.

In Walmarts across the country, unmasked customers, poor disinfecting practices, and a lack of protective gear are far too common. At least 22 Walmart associates have allegedly died of the virus, but the count is likely much higher; the company has kept infection numbers and death rates under wraps while running costly ad campaigns “thanking” their associates.

Walmart associates still haven’t gotten the $5-an-hour increase we pushed for as hazard pay. The company has instead chosen to give bonuses that amount to $0.73 an hour. 

All the while, since the onset of the pandemic, the Walton family has raked in over $5 million every hour.

This unhinged greed goes hand in hand with the unraveling of our democracy: Walmart’s PAC contributed $140,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) last year, which  supported Donald Trump’s baseless and desperate lawsuits to overturn our election, and is even tied to a co-sponsor of the “rally” that launched the attack on the capitol. Walmart also financed the  political campaigns of two of the senators who voted to object to the results of the 2020 presidential election and egged on the attackers: Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis and Kansas Senator Roger Marshall.

Healing the soul of the nation means Biden must no longer lend his ear to the people and corporations who are fueling our two biggest crises: the pandemic’s toll on essential workers, on BIPOC Americans, and the rise of white supremacist political violence. Healing requires accountability, which means not letting billionaires off the hook. It means hazard pay, paid sick leave, and health care for low-wage essential  workers—and that’s just the beginning. 

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Biden must use his executive power and influence to immediately uplift the essential workers who have kept our country going amid this pandemic and political upheaval. Walmart associates make our employers billions of dollars and keep their stores running through this crisis. If Walmart refuses to keep workers safe, Biden must force them to do so.

Biden Must Stay Faithful To a Strong Workers’ Rights Agenda. Essential Workers Deserve It
Joe Biden in conversation with union members in Lancaster, Pa., on Sep. 7, 2020. (Adam Schultz / Biden for President)

Biden’s announcement of his COVID-19 relief plan that removes the large employer carveout for emergency paid-leave that Walmart and Amazon enjoyed in last year’s relief legislation is a great first step. He must continue to hold big corporations accountable for ensuring worker safety and stopping the spread of the virus, and prioritize the people on the frontlines when making policy decisions.

Since the onset of the pandemic, I have assisted dozens of Walmart associates in filing complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about their concerns that the virus was spreading in stores. That’s why I am so encouraged by Biden’s urging of OSHA to issue a COVID-19 Protection Standard for frontline workers so we have protections from unsafe working conditions and fear of retaliation when we speak up and out; this is an urgent matter of life and death for retail workers.  

Biden’s Labor Department must also make sure federal agencies like OSHA and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) enforce workplace regulations relating to coronavirus. Biden must urge Congress to appropriate funding for OSHA and the EEOC so that these agencies are able to properly investigate worker claims like ours, and provide relief to employees who are forced to face dangerous working conditions, retaliation, and discrimination. These agencies also hold the power to incentivize corporations like Walmart to proactively protect workers, instead of making vulnerable workers shoulder the burden of whistleblowing. 

CEOs will say raising wages and enacting safety measures will be costs that they pass on to consumers. They have used the same talking points for more than 30 years, all the while getting richer while Americans work longer hours for less pay. Biden’s pledge to make $15 an hour the federal minimum wage—an initiative with the support of three in five Americans—is a hard-won victory for us that. As president, Biden must keep his focus on workers and make sure we are compensated fairly and protected.

By using his executive powers in this way, Biden will also send a clear signal to Democrats in Congress that the leader of their party is prioritizing the workers, the organizers, and the everyday people who got him—and them—elected.

Members of Congress already have a framework for legislative action on their desks that will help reinforce these worker protections: The Essential Workers Bill of Rights. This agenda would guarantee all of us who are essential workers hazard pay, paid sick time, and stable scheduling so that we can juggle family and other responsibilities with work amid this pandemic. These measures are urgent; lives are at stake.

If Biden and Democrats want to keep and flip more seats in 2022, they have to be the party of working people. We need them to create and enforce strong business and labor regulations that leaders before him neglected. It is the only way to clean old wounds and restore America’s social contract with those who work the hardest and earn the least among us. 

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Janie Grice is an organizer with United for Respect and former Walmart associate based in Marion, South Carolina.