May 6, 2020 / 8:31 PM / 20 days ago

Breakingviews - Critical workers hold keys to higher minimum pay

An ambulance arrives at the emergency entrance outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., April 13, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - There’s nothing like a coronavirus-induced lockdown to reveal who really matters. Everyone who cares for sick people, for starters. Yet many workers now designated “essential” by leaders such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo make less than average U.S. wages. Any post-virus rethink of supply chains and other problems exposed by the crisis must consider who gets paid what.

Take retail sales workers keeping food on shelves with little hope of safely distancing themselves from colleagues or customers. Their average pay is under $28,000 a year nationally, or around $13 an hour. That’s barely more than the Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guideline for a household of four, and only around half the national average wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Healthcare practitioners at least make a decent $84,000 a year on average, over $40 per hour. That’s skewed by doctors and dentists, both near $200,000, but the typical registered nurse, for example, also does fine. Yet ambulance drivers and attendants, not in the same BLS category, pull in under $30,000 on average, or less than $15 an hour. Emergency medical technicians do only slightly better.

As in the UK and elsewhere, home health aides are financially forgotten – and heavily exposed to Covid-19. They make less than retail workers on average, says the BLS, as do drivers for services like Uber, according to Economic Policy Institute estimates. Bus drivers and postal workers get closer to the national average. Journalists, loan officers and morticians are among the luckier ones with above-average pay.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing remotely essential about astronomically paid top financiers or, say, sports stars. The question is what to do about this iniquity.

Minimum wage laws are one blunt instrument. The hourly pay floor in New York City is $15. Enforcing that nationally would fatten the wallets of a dozen of the roughly 40 BLS categories identified by Breakingviews as overlapping with Cuomo’s “essential” folks – though that would require more than doubling the laughable $7.25 federal minimum wage, a long-term victim of legislative dithering.

Other remedies include greater redistribution of wealth through taxes, including higher levies on the rich and companies, or even establishing a universal basic income. Whether lawmakers take such things seriously will depend on how quickly their lockdown memories fade – or whether their lives, like that of British leader Boris Johnson, are saved by an essential worker.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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