These Billionaires Are Hoarding Wealth While Denying Workers Paid Sick Leave

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the CEOs and families in control of our largest companies are living lavishly while denying their workers basic benefits.

Munira Lokhandwala and Derek Seidman March 31, 2020

Jim Walton claps at the Walmart shareholders meeting event on June 1, 2018 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Photo by Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is lay­ing bare the per­ils that come with mil­lions of work­ers in the U.S. lack­ing paid sick leave. 

Many of these work­ers are employed by some of the nation’s biggest retail, gro­cery, fast food, and hos­pi­tal­i­ty cor­po­ra­tions, which annu­al­ly rake in bil­lions in prof­its. For years, work­ers and orga­niz­ers from these indus­tries have been sound­ing the alarm about the pub­lic health rea­sons we need paid sick time for every­one — let alone that paid sick leave is part of the com­plete wage” that all work­ers deserve as a right. 

Now, with the des­per­ate need to con­tain the coro­n­avirus, many voic­es are loud­ly pro­claim­ing the need, right now, to offer paid sick leave to all workers.

For exam­ple, the New York Times ran an edi­to­r­i­al on March 14th declar­ing that, now, the pub­lic inter­est requires employ­ers to aban­don their long­stand­ing resis­tance to paid sick leave.” It reads:

As the new coro­n­avirus spreads across the Unit­ed States, the time has come for restau­rants, retail­ers and oth­er indus­tries that rely on low-wage labor to aban­don their par­si­mo­nious resis­tance to paid sick leave. Com­pa­nies that do not pay sick work­ers to stay home are endan­ger­ing their work­ers, their cus­tomers and the health of the broad­er public.

Using data from the Shift Project, the NYT edi­to­r­i­al mapped out the mil­lions of work­ers, by com­pa­ny, who lack paid sick leave:

Cor­po­ra­tions should pay work­ers to stay home when they are sick. And con­sumers can encour­age them to do so by stay­ing away from com­pa­nies that don’t offer paid sick leave. https://t.co/GLMNrB6M3V

— New York Times Opin­ion (@nytopinion) March 172020

Here, we pro­file a few of the cor­po­ra­tions that for too long have denied their work­ers paid sick leave even as they raked in bil­lions in prof­its. Their own­ers and CEOs hoard mon­ey that could go towards pay­ing the wages of sick work­ers and instead use this to buy expen­sive man­sions and pri­vate planes, and main­tain their sta­tus as some of the wealth­i­est peo­ple in the world.

Many com­pa­nies, includ­ing some we dis­cuss below, in the face of tremen­dous pres­sure, have insti­tut­ed tem­po­rary paid sick leave poli­cies tied sole­ly to the coro­n­avirus. But out of this cri­sis, paid sick leave for all should become the new and per­ma­nent norm — and to make this hap­pen, these are some of the influ­en­tial com­pa­nies and bil­lion­aires who will need to be challenged.

Wal­mart & the retail industry

With 1.5 mil­lion work­ers, Wal­mart is the largest employ­er in the U.S. — and an esti­mat­ed 347,000 work­ers at the com­pa­ny lack paid sick leave.

As a con­trast, it’s worth high­light­ing the sheer wealth of Walmart’s own­ers. The Wal­tons are the rich­est fam­i­ly in the U.S., worth $130 bil­lion.

To put this in per­spec­tive: if you took half the Walton’s wealth — $65 bil­lion — they’d still be one of the top 5 rich­est fam­i­lies in the world.

The oth­er $65 bil­lion? Every one of Walmart’s 1.5 mil­lion U.S. employ­ees could receive over $43,000.

Mean­while, Wal­mart CEO Doug McMil­lon raked in over $68 mil­lion from 2017 to 2019. In 2018, he made 1,188 times more than the company’s medi­an worker.

Because it pays its work­ers pover­ty wages, Wal­mart has been an enor­mous ben­e­fi­cia­ry of back­door sub­si­dies in the form of assis­tance to its under­paid work­ers so they can repro­duce them­selves to labor anoth­er day at Wal­mart. In 2014, exam­ple, one report esti­mat­ed that Wal­mart received around $6.2 bil­lion in sub­si­dies in the form of food stamps, health care, and oth­er gov­ern­ment programs.

And what’s hap­pened when Walmart’s work­ers have tried to bet­ter their lives through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing? Wal­mart is a noto­ri­ous union buster, alleged­ly shut­ting down entire stores to crush labor activism.

What Wal­mart does mat­ters for every­one else. It is the icon­ic trend­set­ter of cor­po­rate retail in an era of logis­tics, ware­hous­es, and glob­al sup­ply chains. 

Like oth­er cor­po­ra­tions, Wal­mart did final­ly announce an ad hoc pol­i­cy of paid sick leave for employ­ees who become infect­ed with the coro­n­avirus or who face quar­an­tine. Work­ers who don’t want to work out of fear of catch­ing or trans­mit­ting coro­n­avirus can stay home — but they won’t be paid.

Wal­mart is the biggest retail and super­mar­ket employ­er that lacks paid sick leave for many work­ers, but far from the only one. Oth­ers include Kroger (with an esti­mat­ed 189,000 work­ers with­out paid sick leave), Tar­get (151,000), Dol­lar Gen­er­al (109,000), and Pub­lix (89,000).

Accord­ing to OpenSe​crets​.org, Wal­mart has spent at least $23,722,760 in fed­er­al elec­tions since 1990 and $92,645,000 in fed­er­al lob­by­ing since 1998.

Wendy’s & the fast food Industry

Fast food megachain Wendy’s has an esti­mat­ed 133,000 work­ers with­out paid sick leave.

The top own­er of Wendy’s is Tri­an Part­ners, a hedge fund led by bil­lion­aire Nel­son Peltz. Tri­an over­sees $10.9 bil­lion in assets. Peltz is worth $1.6 bil­lion.

Wendy’s is one of Trian’s sig­na­ture port­fo­lio com­pa­nies. Peltz and Tri­an dom­i­nate the board of Wendy’s — Peltz is Wendy’s board chair, Tri­an Pres­i­dent Peter May is vice chair­man, and Peltz’s son Matthew, a Tri­an Part­ner, is a board member.

Peltz lives a lux­u­ri­ous life. He owns a Palm Beach ocean­front estate worth an astound­ing $136.4 mil­lion, mak­ing it one of the most expen­sive res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties in the entire country.

The val­ue of Peltz’s estate alone could cov­er over $1,000 to every Wendy’s work­er with­out paid sick leave. 

And this is just one of Peltz’s homes that we know of. He also owns a 27-room man­sion in Bed­ford, New York. In 2016, he threw a $2 mil­lion bar mitz­vah par­ty for his son.

Peltz is also a major Trump ally. He recent­ly host­ed the prici­est fundrais­er of Trump’s pres­i­den­cy at his Flori­da estate, and he’s per­son­al­ly donat­ed $85,800 to Trump since 2016.

Mean­while, Wendy’s CEO Todd Pene­gor raked in over $16 mil­lion between 2016 and 2018

Wendy’s is not the only fast food chain that doesn’t offer paid sick leave to work­ers. Oth­ers include McDonald’s (517,000), Sub­way (180,000), Burg­er King (165,000), Piz­za Hut (156,000), Taco Bell (124,000), Son­ic (92,000), Chick-fil‑A (89,000), KFC (69,000), and others.

On March 19, Wendy’s final­ly announced a tem­po­rary coro­n­avirus-relat­ed paid sick leave pol­i­cy. McDon­alds is also offer­ing 14 paid sick days to employ­ees who require quar­an­tine, though this only applies to cor­po­rate stores, not its fran­chis­es, which make up 90 per­fect of its stores worldwide.

The fast food indus­try lob­by­ists, such as the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion, have a long his­to­ry of lob­by­ing against paid sick leave legislation.

Mean­while, the Fight for 15 cam­paign is high­light­ing the des­per­ate need for paid sick leave in light of the coro­n­avirus, while the New York Times post­ed a video, viewed by mil­lions, of a shift man­ag­er from a Kansas City, Mis­souri McDonald’s who dis­cuss­es the incred­i­ble stress­es that come with a lack of paid sick leave.

Flori­da fast-food work­ers are on strike, but doing it from home today instead of a big ral­ly. Work­ers like us need paid sick leave, whether it’s a #coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic or sim­ply hav­ing to take a fam­i­ly mem­ber to the doc­tor. #FightFor15 #Unions­ForAll pic​.twit​ter​.com/​0​q​X​V​W​uOznk

— Fight For 15 (@fightfor15) March 122020

https://​plat​form​.twit​ter​.com/​w​i​d​g​e​ts.js

Accord­ing to OpenSe​crets​.org, Wendy’s has spent at least $4,019,409 in fed­er­al elec­tions since 1990 and $653,500 in fed­er­al lob­by­ing since 2007.

Star­bucks & cof­fee megachains

While mil­lions of cus­tomers get caf­feinat­ed at Star­bucks every­day, tens of thou­sands of its employ­ees reg­u­lar­ly lack paid sick leave.

While Star­bucks has a bet­ter paid sick leave pol­i­cy than most oth­er fast food and cof­fee megachains, an esti­mat­ed 68,000 Star­bucks work­ers still lack paid sick time, accord­ing to the Shift Project.*

More­over, just last year, Star­bucks was forced to pay $176,000 in resti­tu­tion to New York City employ­ees for ille­gal­ly requir­ing work­ers to find replace­ments when they need­ed to use sick leave.

Gaby Del Valle of Vox​.com also report­ed on March 16:

A for­mer Star­bucks employ­ee, who worked as a shift super­vi­sor until last week, said man­age­ment didn’t always adhere to the company’s sick-leave poli­cies. In prac­tice, through the sev­er­al stores I worked at, I encoun­tered a pre­vail­ing cul­ture [that] dis­cour­aged tak­ing sick time,” he said. Dur­ing my last few months, before coro­n­avirus hit, there were numer­ous instances where employ­ees would come into work vis­i­bly sick, afraid of call­ing out because they believed man­age­ment and oth­er staff wouldn’t sup­port them.”

Star­bucks for­mer CEO Howard Schultz, who briefly enter­tained a 2020 pres­i­den­tial run, is worth $3.24 bil­lion as of March 24. Schultz also co-found­ed Maveron Cap­i­tal, a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm.

Schultz report­ed­ly owns a $40 mil­lion New York City pent­house, a $33 mil­lion Hawai’i estate, and a lux­u­ri­ous Seat­tle-area home.

Star­bucks work­ers took it upon them­selves to orga­nize for their own safe­ty against the coro­n­avirus. They cre­at­ed a peti­tion cre­at­ed to tem­porar­i­ly close the company’s stores in the face of the pan­dem­ic, which received over 37,000 signatures. 

In a peti­tion with over 25K sig­na­tures, Star­bucks employ­ees are call­ing for the com­pa­ny to sus­pend all busi­ness hours, at every loca­tion, while con­tin­u­ing to pay hourly and salary work­ers, dur­ing the spread of the coro­n­avirus.” https://t.co/V11DSpyMml

— New York Dai­ly News (@NYDailyNews) March 202020

https://​plat​form​.twit​ter​.com/​w​i​d​g​e​ts.js

The peti­tion declared: Star­bucks should sus­pend all busi­ness hours, at every loca­tion, while con­tin­u­ing to pay hourly and salary work­ers, dur­ing the spread of the coronavirus.”

Days lat­er, Star­bucks announced that it was clos­ing all its cafes and only keep­ing its dri­ve-thrus open. It also announced that all work­ers would be paid for the next 30 days, even if they don’t go to work.

But oth­er attempts by Star­bucks work­ers to bet­ter their own lives have been met by intense hos­til­i­ty from management. 

Howard Schultz has been a noto­ri­ous union buster. Ter­ri Ger­stein, Direc­tor of the State and Local Enforce­ment Project at the Har­vard Law School Labor and Work­life Pro­gram, wrote last year:

For one, dur­ing Schultz’s long tenure as CEO, Star­bucks repeat­ed­ly fought against work­ers’ attempts to orga­nize a union. In 2008, for exam­ple, a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board judge found that the com­pa­ny had ille­gal­ly fired three work­ers for their union activ­i­ties, as well as vio­lat­ed oth­er aspects of the law. Star­bucks work­ers in our coun­try still don’t have a union.

Just last month, a Star­bucks work­er at a store in the Orlan­do air­port was fired for try­ing to orga­nize his fel­low work­ers into a union with UNITE HERE.

Accord­ing to OpenSe​crets​.org, Star­bucks has spent at least $1,364,482 in fed­er­al elec­tions since 1994 and $11,218,000 in fed­er­al lob­by­ing since 1994.

Mar­riott Inter­na­tion­al & the hotel industry

Mar­riott Inter­na­tion­al, which is worth $45.3 bil­lion and owns such pres­ti­gious chains as the Ritz-Carl­ton, has 139,000 work­ers cur­rent­ly with­out paid sick leave, accord­ing to the Shift Project.

The Mar­riott fam­i­ly, who found­ed the com­pa­ny in 1927 and remain its top own­ers, were worth near­ly $6 bil­lion as of 2015.

Marriott’s CEO Arne Soren­son has been in his posi­tion since 2012, pre­vi­ous­ly serv­ing as the company’s Pres­i­dent and COO. He’s the company’s first CEO out­side of the Mar­riott family.

Soren­son was pre­vi­ous­ly a mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of Wal­mart, a com­pa­ny, like Mar­riott, that is noto­ri­ous for leav­ing its work­ers with­out basic pro­tec­tions. Soren­son raked in hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars as a Wamart direc­tor. He also serves on the board of the Brook­ings Institute.

As Marriott’s CEO, Soren­son raked in almost $40 mil­lion in total com­pen­sa­tion between 2016 and 2018 alone and is like­ly worth well beyond that. While Mar­riott has sus­pend­ed or cut his and oth­er senior exec­u­tives’ salaries for the rest of 2020 due to the coro­n­avirus, this will hard­ly make a dent in Sorenson’s net wealth.

In the midst of the cur­rent glob­al pan­dem­ic, Mar­riott has ignored the safe­ty of its work­ers by, as of March 25, fail­ing to pro­vide paid sick leave. Last week the com­pa­ny announced that it would be fur­lough­ing tens of thou­sands of work­ers around the world, leav­ing them with­out pay. Mean­while, hotel and trav­el indus­try lob­by­ing groups, and hotel CEOs that includ­ed the CEOs of Mar­riott and Hilton, met with the White House last week to ask for $250 bil­lion in bailouts to the industry.

UNITE HERE, which rep­re­sents many hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers across the nation and has fought for paid sick leave for their Mar­riott work­ers, has said that they might dip into union strike funds to assist laid off and sick work­ers who need assis­tance. Not all Mar­riott work­ers are union­ized, leav­ing many with­out sup­port as this cri­sis continues.

Marriott’s anti-work­er antics are noth­ing new. In 2018, near­ly 8,000 Mar­riott employ­ees in eight cities rep­re­sent­ed by UNITE HERE had to resort to a strike in frus­tra­tion over stalled bar­gain­ing with the com­pa­ny over high­er wages and greater safe­ty mea­sures for employees.

Accord­ing to OpenSe​crets​.org Mar­riott Inter­na­tion­al has spent $18,655,000 on fed­er­al lob­by­ing since 1999 and $8,656,144 on fed­er­al cam­paigns since 1990.

Whole Foods & gro­cery chains

Whole Foods, pur­chased by e‑commerce giant Ama­zon in 2017, fails to pro­vide paid sick leave to an esti­mat­ed 30,000 work­ers, accord­ing to the Shift Project.

Gro­cery store employ­ees have become front-line work­ers in the face of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic in the US. Work­ers at Whole Foods and oth­er gro­cery work­ers have been express­ing their frus­tra­tions with the way that indus­try lead­ers are han­dling the cri­sis as stores are flood­ed with shop­pers try­ing to secure pro­vi­sions for shel­ter in place measures.

Gro­cery chains have his­tor­i­cal­ly fought against paid sick leave leg­is­la­tion and now have large swaths of the U.S. work­force at the fore­front of the cri­sis with­out essen­tial ben­e­fits and pro­tec­tions. Kroger gro­cery chain has over 189,000 work­ers work­ing with­out paid sick leave, Pub­lix chain has anoth­er 89,000, Mei­jers has 57,000, and Weg­mans has 43,000, accord­ing to the Shift Project — though some of these chains, includ­ing Whole Foods, have enact­ed tem­po­rary paid sick leave poli­cies only tied to the coronavirus.

Ama­zon made record prof­its of $11.2 bil­lion in 2018 and con­tin­ues its expan­sion. In con­trast, Ama­zon says it paid 1.2 per­cent in fed­er­al tax­es in 2019, while the aver­age Amer­i­can pays 14 per­cent in fed­er­al taxes.

Amazon’s own­er and on-and-off again rich­est man on earth, Jeff Bezos is esti­mat­ed to be worth over $115 billion. 

Recent­ly, Whole Foods has offered their employ­ees a $2/​hour pay increase through April, which doesn’t even meet the fed­er­al labor rela­tions pro­vi­sions for a 25 per­cent wage increase for employ­ees work­ing under haz­ardous con­di­tions. And Whole Foods still pro­vides no paid sick leave to employ­ees unless they are diag­nosed with COVID-19. Instead, the com­pa­ny is encour­ag­ing employ­ees to donate” their paid sick days to employ­ees who need it. 

Whole Foods CEO sug­gests employ­ees who are not sick donate” their vaca­tion time to employ­ees who are sick: https://t.co/Aw2gUqEpCD

— Jason Koe­bler (@jason_koebler) March 132020

https://​plat​form​.twit​ter​.com/​w​i​d​g​e​ts.js

This all comes after Whole Foods announced that they would be cut­ting med­ical ben­e­fits for part-time work­ers in Sep­tem­ber 2019.

And in 2018 Whole Foods sent store man­agers how-to videos on dis­cour­ag­ing employ­ees from unionizing.

Accord­ing to OpenSe​crets​.org, Ama­zon has spent $20,857,113 on elec­tions since 1998 and $91,497,031 on lob­by­ing since 2000.

Towards paid sick leave for all work­ers — permanently

Work­ers, many already on the edge of despair and liv­ing pay­check-to-pay­check, are being hit incred­i­bly hard by this cri­sis and pushed deep­er into a state of pre­car­i­ty. Eigh­teen per­cent of work­ers report hav­ing lost jobs or hours since the cri­sis began. The pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­al Reserve Bank of St. Louis Pres­i­dent James Bullard is pre­dict­ing the U.S. unem­ploy­ment could hit 30 per­cent lat­er this year.

At the same time, as Mindy Iss­er writes, this cri­sis is also becom­ing a moment for new gains by work­ers and their com­mu­ni­ties, often through them exert­ing their own power.

New York City teach­ers forced May­or De Bla­sio to shut down city schools by threat­en­ing a sick-out. Autowork­ers have tak­en wild­cat actions to shut down plant pro­duc­tion. Thou­sands of peo­ple signed a peti­tion orga­nized by Philadel­phia library work­ers to close the city’s libraries, with paid leave for employ­ees. Orga­niz­ers across the U.S., from Cal­i­for­nia to Mass­a­chu­setts, have won vic­to­ries to sus­pend evic­tions and util­i­ties shut-offs.

Labor Notes reporter Dan DiMag­gio has also sur­veyed how a range of work­ers — from day­care work­ers in Ore­gon to hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers in New Orleans — have fought for sick pay.

As big busi­ness­es and Wall Street firms call for cor­po­rate bailouts and try to find ways to prof­it off of this cri­sis, many will be push­ing in anoth­er direc­tion: orga­nize and build work­ers’ pow­er so that this peri­od of col­lec­tive sac­ri­fice can become a spring­board to advance work­ers’ rights and remake our social safety.

*Update: Since the pub­li­ca­tion of this arti­cle, the Star­bucks Glob­al Cor­po­rate PR office reached out to say that all employ­ees have access to paid leave, includ­ing sick leave, parental leave, and fam­i­ly leave.” Inde­pen­dent research from the UC Berke­ley Shift Project, fea­tured in a March 14, New York Times edi­to­r­i­al, esti­mates that 68,000 Star­bucks work­ers say they lack access to paid sick leave. Star­bucks claims this find­ing is inaccurate. 

Cor­rec­tion: This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly stat­ed that Howard Schultz was CEO of Star­bucks. Schultz is the com­pa­ny’s for­mer CEO, leav­ing the posi­tion in 2017, and today serves as Chair­man Emer­i­tus of the Star­bucks board of direc­tors. As of last year, he remained Star­bucks’ largest indi­vid­ual share­hold­er. Kevin John­son is cur­rent­ly the CEO of Star­bucks.

This piece was first post­ed at Lit­tle­Sis.

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