COVID-19 has been called the great equalizer, but is it? Although we’re all supposed to be in this together, the rich and poor are experiencing this pandemic very differently. The awful disparity in who lives and dies is just one of the worst examples. From employment to health insurance, there are other glaring inequities as well.
While people who work in white-collar jobs are mainly working from home right now, there are plenty of blue-collar workers who don't have that option. Almost 86 percent of U.S. workers are employed in service industry jobs, up from 68 percent in 1970, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these people are in low paying jobs with few benefits. However, they are now also risking their lives as many of the work involves face-to-face customer contact such as that experienced by grocery store clerks and gas station attendants.
And they might feel lucky that they are still employed. More than 22 million Americans filed for unemployment in the last four weeks, and the people applying have disproportionately been lower-wage workers. Again, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in all of the sectors most affected by layoffs, except sensitive manufacturing, the wage share is lower than the employment share, indicating that, on average, workers in the most highly exposed sectors earn less than workers employed elsewhere. On average, wage earnings in exposed areas make up 12.2 percent of total wage earnings, which is substantially less than the employment share (20 percent). And the gap between white collar versus lower wage salaries is increasing. McKinsey estimates that up to 80% of the most vulnerable workers in the U.S. are earning the lowest wages. So, the people who are the least likely to have a nest egg are precisely the ones who will have the highest risk of losing their jobs temporarily or permanently.
While the U.S. has been struggling to get more testing kits to medical facilities, some wealthier individuals are not having the same problem. On Fisher Island, (one of the highest income zip codes in the country where fewer than 1,000 people live), residents were able to purchase blood antibody testing kits for everyone (including their staffs) from the University of Miami. Meanwhile, average Floridians arrived as early as 4 am at a facility in Miami to get one of only 400 tests available each day. And anyone without a vehicle was still out of luck because the tests are only offered at drive-through facilities. Due to backlash, the county mayor, Carlos Gimenez, announced that in-home testing would be available for some residents unable to reach drive-through sites.
While universal health insurance has been a controversial topic for years, the pandemic has further solidified why many Americans need it. For example, the sickest people are being treated in intensive care units (ICUs) where they may spend a week or more. According to Researchgate.net, the mean intensive care unit cost and length of stay ranges from $31,574 to $42,570 for 14.4 to 15.8 days for those patients requiring mechanical ventilation. And costs for the first several days can run as high as $10,794. Imagine surviving the pandemic and then coming out of the hospital with a bill for almost $43,000.
In addition to lack of insurance, many of the lowest wage earners do not get paid sick leave. So, if they need to stay home due to the virus, they are foregoing their salary for those days. Just 47 percent of the bottom quarter of American wage-earners have access to paid sick days, compared to 90 percent of the top quarter, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The choice for many workers is a nearly impossible one. As Melissa Love, a Walmart employee, said, "We shouldn’t have to fear losing our jobs or not qualifying for a bonus if we have to stay home because of the virus.”
At BCT Partners, we have spent the last 20 years trying to create a more just and equitable society. We see firsthand the inequities that affect our most vulnerable citizens. COVID-19 is just shining a brighter spotlight on it. So, as Americans, we all have to ask ourselves, “do we want an economy where there are only rich and poor or, do we want all of our citizens to be able to take advantage of the American dream?” As Julie Kashen, senior policy advisor at the National Domestic Workers Alliance said, “Moments of crisis are important times to look at our values and see where there are gaps in our current policies. Everyone in the care workforce is underpaid, and there needs to be a rethinking of the way that we value care (and the people that provide it).”
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BCT Partners was recently named one of America’s top management consulting firms by Forbes.