Don’t Just Market Your Workers. Pay Them.

January 28, 2021

Whether you are rewatching The Office for the tenth time or you finally got sucked into starting Survivor, you might be watching a lot of TV at home during these quarantine times. If you’re streaming from a service that has ads, you may have noticed a trend in the commercials you see: major corporations using their low-wage, “essential” workers in ads to humanize and market themselves. Some highlight local employees, while others more generally thank their workforce.

Inadvertently, though, they all reflect some of the deep labor market inequities the pandemic has exacerbated. These frontline workers are at the highest risk but, despite major corporate profits last year, are provided little pay and insufficient protections.

Amazon, for example, launched a series of ads that feature employees adapting to work amid the pandemic. The frontline warehouse workers in these ads are predominantly women and people of color, while the one featured person who is able to work from home is a white man. These ads show the disparity in the race and gender of workers in these high-risk, low-wage roles. 

In spite of the sunny depictions, Amazon only provided an additional $2/hour of hazard pay from the beginning of the pandemic to June, and hundreds of Amazon’s frontline workers staged protests last spring in response to the company’s insufficient safety measures and support. Meanwhile, Amazon outperformed expectations last year and ended the third quarter with a net income of $6.2 billion, and CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth increase more than $71.4 billion since March 2020. 

Walmart dedicated its 2020 commercials to empty statements about how their workers are heroes, highlighting how dedicated they are to keeping their stores clean amid the pandemic. The company did little to materially support their employees, however. Walmart’s minimum hourly wage has stayed $11/hour through 2020, and the company even began cutting hours for employees after a temporary pause in shift reductions. Meanwhile, the Walton family’s three living heirs—Walmart’s largest shareholders—each have seen their individual net worth increase by more than $14 billion (about 26 percent each) since March 2020.

Seeing these ads in passing, you may not think anything of them. But together, they reflect deeper truths. Women and people of color—especially women of color—have been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 recession. Women are overrepresented in frontline work—making up more than half of the cashiers (71.8 percent), retail salespersons (63.5 percent), and customer service representatives (63.7 percent); so too are workers of color, who make up 44.6 percent of cashiers, 42.5 percent of retail salespersons, and 42.2 percent of customer service representatives. 

Such marginalized workers need more than starring roles in big-box ads. Marketing workers as “heroes” without providing the protections they want and need—safety on the job, livable wages, and a voice in their workplace—only benefits corporations themselves. If corporations really want to treat their workers as the heroes they are, we have a few suggestions for where to start: