By Tom Conway
USW International President
COVID-19 killed at least 115,000 Americans, infected more than two million others and sent the nation’s unemployment rate soaring to the highest level since the Great Depression.
But the pandemic hasn’t been hard on everyone. For some, it’s been an opportunity to fill their coffers.
The crisis made Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example, already the world’s wealthiest person, a whole lot richer. His fortune increased a whopping $36.2 billion in a mere 11 weeks as shoppers flocked to the online retailer to buy supplies.
And Bezos wasn’t alone.
As his company fulfilled an avalanche of orders with warehouse workers who risked their lives in unsafe conditions, other 1-percenters and corporations siphoned off billions in stimulus funds — money that working Americans devastated by the COVID-19 recession need to survive.
Instead of sharing ordinary Americans’ pain, these pirates of the pandemic exploited it. Their plundering worsened the income inequality that already threatened America as much as any disease and leaves the nation even more vulnerable in the next storm.
In March, Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided cash payments of $1,200 to about 150 million households needing help with day-to-day expenses.
Yet that was peanuts compared to the “millionaires’ giveaway” that Senate Republicans snuck into the legislation. Buried in the bill was language giving 43,000 of the nation’s richest people an average tax break of $1.6 million each.
This corporate charity allows real estate developers, hedge fund owners and other financiers to use business losses from past years — losses that have nothing to do with COVID-19 and exist largely on paper — to reap huge refunds.
Millionaires and billionaires, some of whom rode out the pandemic in the comfort of yachts and secluded island retreats, need no relief. But they’ll gladly loot the public treasury at the expense of Americans who kept government offices open, worked in factories or did other essential work before losing their jobs in the economic downturn.
Health care workers put their lives on the line during the pandemic. But corporations and the ultra-rich stabbed them in the back.
The CARES Act provided $175 billion for health care systems that curtailed elective surgeries and scaled back other procedures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities.
Instead of sustaining cash-strapped hospitals, however, much of the money went to big, corporate health systems already flush with cash. While padding their coffers with stimulus funds, these profiteers added insult to injury by laying off or cutting the pay of the very workers who kept hospitals open during the pandemic.
HCA Healthcare, a hospital chain based in Nashville, Tenn., made more than $7 billion in profits in the past two years. It received about $1 billion in stimulus funds. Now, it’s threatening to lay off thousands of nurses if they refuse wage freezes and other givebacks.
Like many health systems laying off staff or cutting worker pay amid the pandemic, HCA still pays its CEO millions.
In the meantime, rising unemployment and pandemic bailouts for the rich are worsening the rampant income inequality that left America vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place.
And the growing disparities threaten to put the nation even further at risk in the next crisis.
Over the past 40 years, CEO pay soared while workers’ wages stagnated. Instead of sharing profits with the workers who generated them, executives and shareholders kept the money for themselves.
Today, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans average more than nine times the income of the other 90 percent. More and more Americans struggle to pay for college, save for retirement and afford health care.
As COVID-19 showed, the growing concentration of wealth does more than threaten Americans’ livelihoods. It puts their very health at risk. That’s because the rich people who use their money to monopolize politics can’t be bothered to ensure the masses have health care, paid sick leave and safe working conditions.
Many COVID-19 victims had low-wage service-sector positions in places like grocery stores and pharmacies, requiring them to risk the virus at work sites while more fortunate workers did their jobs from home.
These front-line jobs often fail to provide health insurance, so the people doing them were doubly exposed. And these positions often deny workers paid sick leave, forcing some to go to work even at the risk of infecting co-workers.
But it wasn’t enough to leave Americans at risk. When the pandemic hit, the super-rich used their domination of politics not only to pack stimulus bills with spoils for themselves but also to keep the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from protecting workers.
Instead of implementing an emergency, temporary infectious disease standard and requiring employers to follow strict safety protocols, as the United Steelworkers (USW) and other labor unions wanted, OSHA let corporations make their own safety rules.
Many did little or nothing.
While the wealth Bezos accumulated during the crisis put him on track to become the world’s first trillionaire, Amazon failed to protect its army of warehouse workers from the virus.
Some said the company forced them to work at “dizzying speeds,” even if they couldn’t maintain social distancing or take time to wash their hands.
Americans have a right to return home safely at the end of their shifts. Instead, the Bezoses of the world treat them as expendable.
Unless America addresses runaway income inequality and begins protecting the most vulnerable in society, the next pandemic will hit the nation even harder.
That means passing stimulus bills, like a major investment in infrastructure, that jump-start the economy and put Americans back to work. It means enacting safety laws that keep American workers healthy and productive.
And it means ensuring stimulus aid goes to people who need it, not millionaires and billionaires hunting for more treasure.