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Pandemic profiteering: Essential workers overlooked as billionaires gain $1 trillion

By Michael Phulwani, Esq. and
By Dev B. Viswanath, Esq.

Washington: Essential workers went underpaid, unsupported and forced to risk their health at corporations owned or operated by billionaires, even as the total wealth of America’s billionaires rose by more than $1 trillion under the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), United for Respect, and Bargaining for the Common Good Network. An analysis of billionaire wealth by IPS found that 647 U.S. billionaires gained $960 billion, in wealth between March 18 and November 17 this year. There are 33 new billionaires since mid-March.

According to the report, during the pandemic, a “Delinquent Dozen” companies have vastly increased fortunes for their owners and CEOs but provided inadequate protection for their workers. These companies are emblematic of corporate greed that has grown rampant over the last 40 years. The corporations scrutinized in the report include: Walmart, Amazon, Instacart, Tyson Foods, and Target.

Ten of the billionaire owners of seven of these companies have a combined wealth of $433 billion. Since March their combined personal wealth has increased $127.5 billion, an increase of 42 %. These ten 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).

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

“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,” said Courtenay Brown, an Amazon Fresh warehouse worker in New Jersey and leader with United for Respect. “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, and Amazon is not doing enough to protect our lives.”

Instacart’s profits have surged during the pandemic thanks to its essential workers on the frontlines of retail shopping for secluding customers. CEO founder Apoorva Mehta became an instant billionaire in June and is now worth $1.6 billion. He will see his wealth multiply when the company goes public in early 2021

The report also studied private equity and investment firms Blackrock, Blackstone, KKR, Cerberus Capital, BC Partners and Leonard Green Partners. The owners of these firms have seen their fortunes surge. The report also points out that private equity has moved into essential services such as health care, grocery provision and pet supply. But the business model of extreme cost cutting and debt loading in order to squeeze profits out of already profitable companies is fundamentally incompatible with the needs of protecting workers and communities during a pandemic.

To address pandemic profiteering, the report proposes corporations employing essential workers should:

  •  Immediately implement hazard pay of at least $5 per hour
  •  Provide substantial paid sick leave benefits for workers to stay home when ill, quarantine when exposed, and care for sick loved ones, as well as paid bereavement leave for those who have had family members die from COVID-19
  •  Provide, regularly replace, and upgrade high quality PPE at no cost to all their essential workers

Policies needed to target the pandemic profiteering of millionaires, billionaires and exploitative businesses such as private equity firms, include levying an Emergency Pandemic Wealth Tax on billionaires to raise $450 billion and fund protections for essential workers.

 

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