'Thank yous don't pay my bills': Essential workers feeding America during the coronavirus pandemic aren't 'heroes' by choice

'Thank yous don't pay my bills': Essential workers feeding America during the coronavirus pandemic aren't 'heroes' by choice

taco bell Employees

Taco Bell

Taco Bell employees.

  • As essential workers - including those still showing up to work at fast-food chains - are celebrated, some say they would prefer to receive better benefits and pay than appreciation without compensation. 
  • "I posted a status on Facebook the other day ... with a hashtag of "#thankyousdontpaymybills,'" said a Taco Bell manager. "It seems snarky, but sadly it's the truth of what we are dealing with." 
  • There is growing concern that essential workers, ranging from those working in restaurants to healthcare, may not be getting sufficient pay, benefits, or protection, in part because of the celebration of their sacrifices. 
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As fast-food workers and other essential workers are celebrated, some say they would prefer that Americans realize they aren't choosing to be seen as heroes.

In many cases, workers simply need to survive - and the jobs that are seen as essential are barely paying the bills. 

Nelson Santiago recently quit his job at a Wendy's in Waco, Texas, after feeling "disrespected and humiliated" when his location received a bag of candy from the franchisee's corporate office, thanking workers.

Santiago told Business Insider he was making $8.50 an hour and had recently lost his second job at Golden Corral. He wanted hazard pay and enforcement of social distancing, not a gift bag of kid-size candies. 


"For them to say a simple thank you while they sit in the comfort of their homes with their families protected and reaping the benefits of these chains still being open - it is insulting," Santiago said. 

One Taco Bell manager told Business Insider that he has become increasingly upset about the treatment of workers during the pandemic. He and other workers quoted in this article (Business Insider has spoken to more than 30 in recent weeks) were granted anonymity in order to speak freely; his and other workers' employment were verified via pay stubs or other documentation. 

The manager said he has been helping employees file for unemployment and taking on extra hours, working as many as 65 a week without additional pay, as other workers resign because their hours have been cut. 

"I posted a status on Facebook the other day that got many shares, with a hashtag of "#thankyousdontpaymybills,'" the Taco Bell manager said. "It seems snarky, but sadly it's the truth of what we are dealing with." 

In March, a Starbucks employee voiced similar thoughts. (Since the employee spoke with Business Insider, the coffee giant has closed all cafés and told workers they would be paid whether they come to work or not.


"It has made a lot of other employees upset when customers say 'thank you for being open' or 'I don't know what I'd do without my coffee', rather than recognizing that we're putting our health in danger by coming into contact with so many people," the worker said. 

Many essential employees are pushing back against the 'hero' concept

Tweets and Reddit posts about appreciation without compensation are going viral among essential workers. 


Workers in other sectors, such as healthcare, are also pushing back against the presentation of essential workers as "heroes" or "angels" during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"I feel like the people in power's perspective on medical professionals shifted from 'workers' to 'heroes' because if they're just 'heroes' it erases responsibility to protect them from vulnerable situations - it implies they somehow signed up to be exploited, which they did not," tweeted BuzzFeed's Kristin Chirico. 


If workers are considered 'heroes,' they want to be treated fairly

Some fast-food workers said that some people's appreciation for their work ignored their demands for more benefits, paid time off, and hazard pay. 

"It's disgusting that we aren't even recognized financially by the state, let alone the federal government," the Taco Bell manager said. "We aren't asking for $15 per hour or anything permanent. We just want to be financially sound during this time of being considered 'essential.'"

Many fast-food workers said they were terrified about catching the coronavirus at work. Being called a hero does little to assuage fears about sickness or being unable to pay bills if locations shut down or if their hours were cut. 

Chains have been working to roll out new safety measures and new sick leave policies. 

When asked for comment on Taco Bell's response to the coronavirus, a representative highlighted new safety measures such as providing gloves for all cashiers, increasing sanitizing routines, and ensuring hand sanitizer is available for workers and customers. Taco Bell is working on procedures to help workers with social distancing while working, according to a representative. 


"The drive-thru business continues to be essential, and one of the safest ways, for individuals and families to get food quickly and affordably," a Taco Bell representative said. 

Wendy's did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment on Santiago's experience. In late March, a representative said that the chain has introduced enhanced safety precautions, including rolling out no-contact and limited ordering options. 

"All Company employees - whether enrolled in a company medical plan or not - have access to our Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which provides free, confidential 24/7 counseling," the representative said. "Further, we have a program in place where all U.S. Company employees have access to telehealth and can see a board-certified doctor through a video consultation from a smartphone, tablet or computer for a low cost, making it easier for employees to get the care they may need."

However, with most workers in the industry employed by franchisees, benefits rarely extend to all people working at a chain. At Wendy's, for example, only 6% of locations are company-owned. It took the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to require franchisees with 50 to 500 locations to provide workers with two weeks of paid sick leave. 

Compensation for "heroes" may also become legislation. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed that frontline "heroes" receive up to $25,000 as part of the new crisis rescue package. 


"This is a heroes' fund and they deserve it," Schumer said on Tuesday. 

Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email covidtips@businessinsider.com and tell us your story.

And get the latest coronavirus analysis and research from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses.