scorecardThe coronavirus outbreak is exposing the devastating gaps between the rich and poor at a moment when America is primed for class warfare
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The coronavirus outbreak is exposing the devastating gaps between the rich and poor at a moment when America is primed for class warfare

Kate Taylor   

The coronavirus outbreak is exposing the devastating gaps between the rich and poor at a moment when America is primed for class warfare
Retail6 min read
The divisions between the rich and poor are infuriatingly clear in 2020.    Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
  • The coronavirus outbreak is highlighting vast disparities between the rich and poor in America.
  • Wealthy people are paying private labs for coronavirus tests, taking private jets out of infected areas, and spending thousands of dollars stockpiling air purifiers, Ebola hazmat suits, and $4,000 cuts of meat.
  • Meanwhile, more than half of American jobs are at risk, with some workers already relying on GoFundMe donations and others risking exposure while working in fast food or retail.
  • Even before the outbreak, economic populism had taken root across the political spectrum, sparking questions about whether the 2020 election would center around class warfare.
  • Some workers are already using the outbreak as chance to fight for protections.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus outbreak is exposing the vast differences between how the rich and poor live in America in 2020.

The gaps became clear almost immediately, when companies and governments began advising employees to work from home. Bankers and corporate employees could go remote. People working on the front lines of the restaurant and retail industries could not, especially as stores were flooded with panicked people stockpiling pre-isolation.

"What do I do?" a Walmart employee told Hayley Peterson and Shoshy Ciment in early March. "I'm scared. I'm scared to lose my job and I'm scared to die from the coronavirus. Please help me."

A Pew survey found that the majority of people making more than $100,000 said they would continue to get paid if coronavirus cased them to miss work for at least two weeks. Just 16% of those making less than $30,000 said the same. 41% of white workers said they would continue to get paid, compared to 27% and 23% of Black and Hispanic workers, respectively.

While many companies have updated their sick-leave policies, and a new bill requires companies with 50 to 500 workers to provide paid leave tied to the coronavirus, millions are still not covered. Lower-income workers are far less likely to have paid sick leave - 31% of the lowest-earning 10%, versus 94% of top earners, according to Pew. Many gig economy workers, such as Lyft drivers and Seamless delivery people, still do not have paid sick leave as part of their jobs.

As the coronavirus has spread in the US, celebrities like Kris Jenner and NBA players have gotten tested quickly before they have symptoms, likely using private labs and concierge doctors. Meanwhile, shortages have made it difficult and time-intensive for most Americans to get tested.

The division would almost be absurdly comic, if it weren't heartbreaking

A short list of how the rich are dealing with the coronavirus outbreak:

Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A coronavirus drive-thru test in Colorado.


average medical cost for possible coronavirus treatment US

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

America has been primed for class warfare in 2020

Even before the outbreak, the US was ripe for class warfare. Income inequality is at record highs as the middle class shrinks.

In February 2019, Insider's Eliza Relman reported how economic populism has taken root across the political spectrum, particularly on the left. Conservatives told her that Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were fanning the flames of class warfare, a charge that some on the left have been happy to embrace.

"Class war is the only war that's necessary and apparently the only one conservatives wouldn't support waging for two decades without end," Sean McElwee, a progressive activist and cofounder of Data for Progress, told Relman at the time.

The coronavirus outbreak all but guarantees a massive recession, with Deutsche Bank forecasting that declines seen in the first and second quarters will "substantially exceed anything previously recorded going back to at least World War II."

As seen in the 2008 recession, an economic downturn will likely impact the most vulnerable in society the most. And, since the Great Recession, a number of states have cut worker assistance and unemployment benefits further, according to liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress.

Some workers are already using this outbreak as a chance to fight for protections

fight for 15 minimum wage

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Workers protest outside a McDonald's restaurant in 2015.

Workers are organizing in the face of coronavirus, pushing both for short-term solutions and longer-term protections.

This week, Trump signed an emergency coronavirus package that requires companies with between 50 and 500 workers to provide paid sick leave. Democrats initially pushed for the two weeks of paid sick leave to be a permanent step companies needed to take, but Republicans pushed back and the requirement was removed.

Amazon workers in Italy, France, and New York have protested the company's response to sick employees. Starbucks employees are signing a petition asking stores to close and employees to get paid time off to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Trader Joe's workers are demanding hazard pay, with a coalition of workers making a public push to unionize on Twitter.

Companies are still pushing back against these efforts.

While McDonald's supported the paid sick leave bill, it lobbied against plans to use a tax credit to cover the cost. According to a Trader Joe's worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, employees are sharing stories of in-store management criticizing unions and the petition for hazard pay.

"We are aware that there are union advocates communicating with the public and contacting our Crew Members, wanting to take credit for our proactive decisions," a Trader Joe's representative told Business Insider. "We want to make perfectly clear - each of these decisions was ours and ours alone, and we began working on these benefits for all of our Crew Members across the nation before the union advocates began voicing their opinions."

When asked for comment, a Trader Joe's representative emphasized the importance of workers' and customers' health, noting that the chain offered paid time off prior to the coronavirus outbreak, recently updated its cleaning and safety protocols, and offers up to two weeks of paid sick leave to workers quarantined for or diagnosed with coronavirus.

"The company is bent on maintaining status quo and the appearance of normalcy," the Trader Joe's worker told Business Insider. "But it is materially obvious that the status quo is moot and nothing is normal."

"They're so scared of the specter of a union they can't bring themselves to provide policies that help their workers," the employee added. "That's just not tenable. It's going to break."

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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