Billionaire Bonanza Continues as Workers Pounded by Pandemic, Recession, and GOP Relief Refusal – Brett Wilkins (11/20/2020)

A handful of billionaires and corporations are enjoying record financial gains—often attained at the expense of worker safety—during the peaking coronavirus pandemic, according to a report published Wednesday by a coalition of advocacy groups.

“We don’t need feel-good TV commercials thanking us for being heroes, we need $5 an hour in hazard pay, paid sick leave, and workplace protections from this dangerous virus.”
—Courtenay Brown, Amazon Fresh warehouse worker

As over a thousand people in the U.S. alone die each day during the deadliest pandemic in a century, plutocrats and their businesses are thriving like never before, in no small part due to a system rife with profiteering, opportunism, and worker exploitation. So says the report, entitled Billionaire Wealth vs. Community Health: Protecting Essential Workers from Pandemic Profiteers, which focuses on 12 of the most egregious pandemic profiteers—the “Delinquent Dozen”—who include the owners of Walmart and the CEOs of Amazon and Target.

These companies and their owners and executives have benefited from their “monopoly positions,” the report states, but their success “hasn’t translated into better pay or safer working conditions for the employees showing up to work in a pandemic.”

It’s not just corporations—”private equity firms have bought up essential businesses in the healthcare, grocery, and pet care industries, only to aggressively cut costs, skimp on worker safety, and load companies up with debt to boost their own profits,” the report notes.

Among its key findings:

  • As of November 17, the combined wealth of 647 U.S. billionaires increased by almost $960 billion since mid-March, the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.
  • Since March, there are 33 new billionaires in the U.S. Driving this exploding inequality are 12 companies whose profits are coming at the expense of workers and communities, including retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Target, and Dollar Tree, and Dollar Store, gig economy companies like Instacart, and food producers like Tyson Foods.
  • Also included is the investment giant BlackRock and private equity firms like Leonard Green Partners, Blackstone, Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co., Cerberus Capital, BC Partners, and CVC Capital Partners. These private equity firms own several essential healthcare, grocery, and pet supply companies.
  • Ten billionaire owners of “Delinquent Dozen” companies have a combined worth of $433 billion. Since March 18, their combined personal wealth has ballooned by $127.5 billion, a 42% increase. These 10 billionaires 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).

The report features harrowing testimonies from workers affected by both the pandemic and their employers’ policies and actions.

“I close the register many nights, so I know my store’s revenue has practically doubled since the coronavirus hit,” said Kenya Slaughter, an employee of Dollar General—which is partly owned by the global financial behemoth BlackRock. “But we workers haven’t gotten any extra money, even though we’re risking our health, and our families’ health, to keep the stores running.”

Courtenay Brown, an Amazon Fresh warehouse worker in New Jersey and organizer with the worker advocacy group United for Respect, said, “While Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire, the frontline workers like me who’ve built his fortune are treated like we’re disposable.”

Brown added: 

As the virus spikes, we get more and more orders, and Amazon expects us to work at inhumane rates. The pace is blistering and people get injured on the job a lot, people get sick, people are scared of catching [Covid-19], and Amazon is not doing enough to protect our lives. It’s time for Amazon’s workers to get some actual compensation for the essential work we’re doing—we don’t need feel-good TV commercials thanking us for being heroes, we need $5 an hour in hazard pay, paid sick leave, and workplace protections from this dangerous virus.

The report contains a set of recommended solutions for companies employing essential workers, as well as for lawmakers seeking to protect workers and reduce the power of plutocrats and the businesses they own. For employers, these include immediately offering workers at least $5 per hour in hazard pay, paid sick leave, and other essential benefits. For legislators, an Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights, workplace health councils, a pandemic wealth tax, and a profiteering oversight committee are among the recommended remedies.

“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.”
—Chuck Collins, Institute for Policy Studies

“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,” Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and one of the authors of the report, wrote in a Common Dreams op-ed published Wednesday.

“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,” Collins added. 

The report was produced by Bargaining for the Common Good, the Institute for Policy Studies, and United for Respect and published in partnership with Action Center on Race and the Economy, Americans for Financial Reform, Jobs With Justice, New York Communities for Change, Step Up Louisiana, and Working Washington.

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