Some stores and warehouses are about to end hazardous duty pay for workers

Plus, no one is wearing pants and sales are down, how masks make life difficult for some, why ultraviolet disinfecting lights won't save us, and more.

May 15, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Only a few weeks ago there was a big movement to get extra pay for store employees working in “hazardous” jobs. Already, in just a couple of weeks, Starbucks, Target, Kroger and a bunch of others have plans to stop that bonus pay. Amazon said the $2 per hour bonus it was paying warehouse workers will end after May 30.

The Los Angeles Times reported:

Unions such as UFCW Local 770, which represents more than 20,000 grocery workers in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, criticized the shift.

“The pandemic exposed how little corporations pay many workers, workers on whom the public deeply depends,” said John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770 in a statement. “With all eyes on essential workers during the pandemic, grocery corporations were quick to capitalize on the good PR of raising wages, but they cannot justify taking them away, especially since they have continued to do business while so many other businesses are closed and their profits are record high.”

While lockdowns have caused financial strain for many companies, grocery and pharmacy companies have seen gains in sales as demand for essential goods and food has skyrocketed. Drugstore chain CVS Health saw its first quarter profits surge 41%, for example.

Bloomberg quoted an Amazon worker:

“Two weeks of extra pay isn’t close to what we need,” Monica Moody, an Amazon warehouse worker in Charlotte, North Carolina, said in a statement. “At a minimum, hazard pay should be extended for the entire length of this pandemic. If we are putting our lives at risk to pack and deliver Amazon packages, we deserve to be paid for it.”

Amazon said it is spending about $4 billion this quarter protecting workers with masks and increased sanitation measures, plus pay raises.

We are buying ‘comfortable’ during the COVID-19 lockdown

April’s retail sales analytics say a lot about our state of mind right now.

Online pajama sales surged 143% in April compared with March, according to Adobe Analytics. At the same time, sales of pants are down 13% and bra sales dropped 12%.

But online shoppers are still buying tops and shirts, because you know, when you are only being seen on a web camera, who cares about the rest?

How masks make life difficult for people who are deaf or hard of hearing

As I watched a couple of governors hold COVID-19 news conferences this week, it occurred to me how the people standing next to them, signing for the deaf or hard of hearing community, use a range of facial expressions as part of their communication.

I looked around for how masks are making life difficult for the deaf or hard of hearing community and found a range of stories about groups who are asking political and health leaders to include a sign language interpreter in all briefings. I also found stories that explain the frustrations of people who rely on lip-reading, who now feel left out now that so many of us wear masks in public.

The Hearing, Speech & Deaf Center said:

Standard face masks make lipreading impossible in the hospital, the grocery stores, and other essential businesses. In addition, Deaf and hard of hearing people rely on facial expressions to communicate, so blocking half of your face removes a crucial source of information.

To help, the center supplies plans for masks that have a little plastic window in them to allow one to see another person’s lips.

It also raised a question in my mind about whether schools that are moving classes online have considered how they will make the teaching accessible to students who need signing.

Ultraviolet disinfecting lights are hot right now, but you probably don’t need one

The COVID-19 pandemic ignited new interest in ultraviolet light sanitizers. Hospitals have used this technology for years. CNBC said the market was valued at $1.1 billion in 2018 and could reach $3.4 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.

You will recall that President Donald Trump made some comments about sunlight and ultraviolet light that became the brunt of jokes, but ultraviolet C light can actually be used for disinfecting everything from surgical gear to cellphones.

One product, SoapPhone, claims to kill 99.9% of “household germs” like bacteria, salmonella and E.Coli, but whether products like SoapPhone work on the COVID-19 virus strain is still unknown. But remember, if you disinfect your phone, you have a contaminated phone again the moment you touch it with your germy hands. SoapPhone sold out of devices in March and is taking orders for delivery later this month.

UV light can be dangerous, so it would be worth your time to explore the difference between UVC light, the most dangerous; UVB light, like what comes from the sun; and UVA light, which is used in the treatment of skin cancer.

The Washington Post thew some soap and water on the whole notion of disinfecting with ultraviolet light:

Owning a newfangled UVC sanitizing gadget may sound comforting during a pandemic. But it’s not necessary. Wiping — not spraying — with 70% isopropyl alcohol on your phone disinfects just as well, while alcohol or bleach solutions work much better on 3-D objects such as groceries or packages.

When meat supplies tighten, will meat substitutes find a market?

Meat processing plant closures might sound like just the invitation that meat substitutes need to find a foothold in the marketplace. Even when meat is more widely available, The American Institute for Cancer Research said you should eat “no more than 12-18 ounces of beef, pork and other red meats per week.” Read that again: It says “week,” not “day.” And the institute recommends a diet of “plant-based food,” which again, makes it sound like a meat substitute may be just the thing.

But health experts are calling some meat substitutes “highly-processed foods,” and recommends treating them just as you would red meat.

Market analysts also pointed to the price of meat substitutes as a barrier for them to take a bigger share of the food market. But look at Beyond Meat’s stock and you can see there is a lot of optimism about the future. Meat substitute sales have more than doubled compared to a year ago, according to Nielsen data. But let’s keep that in perspective. The whole meat substitute industry has been on the move in just the last year or so, so percentages may not tell us the whole story. And at the same time, regular meat sales also increased from 50% to 100%.

The trend tracking website Culinary Tides predicts the COVID-19 pandemic will “upend” the meat market because the people who are now trying meat substitutes are mostly people who usually eat meat, not vegetarians who want to try food that taste like meat.

If you dare, now is a great time to buy a car

If you need a new ride and can take a big expense, you can get a great deal. With April new car sales almost half of what they were a year ago, car dealers will stretch a lot right now to make a sale.

Car manufacturers like General Motors have big incentives on, including flexible payment plans and payment extensions. But Car and Driver warned:

Being smart means understanding all of the details of an all-caps ZERO DOWN, ZERO PERCENT deal. Automotive News, for example, points out that deferring the first few payments works well for people who plan on keeping their new vehicle for eight to 10 years, but for those who plan on trading in their car after 36 or 48 months, a few months’ deferral can put a dent in the equity they would have otherwise built up, which means they could owe more when the time comes to trade up.

Zero-percent financing has proven to be extremely popular during the pandemic. Data from Edmunds shows that 0% deals made up almost 26% of all financed purchases in April. This is up from less than 5% in March and less than 4% in February. But, while a 0% loan that stretches out for seven years might seem like a way to get free money, it could just as easily get you to buy a more expensive vehicle than would be financially prudent.

Used car sales have slowed, too. Pricey used models, including Teslas, are selling even slower than others, according to a national survey. New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver and Boston (in that order) showed the biggest used car sales slowdowns in March.

The pandemic is changing our minds about where to live

A new Harris Poll found COVID-19 has pushed a lot of Americans over the edge and now they want to leave big cities. The poll found:

Over 3 in 10 Americans say the COVID-19 pandemic makes them want to live in a rural area more than 21 miles of a major city (37%) or a suburb within 10 miles of a major city (35%).

Boomers are more likely than Gen Z/Millennials and Gen X to say the pandemic makes them want to live in a rural area (44% vs 34% and 31%).

E-scooters and e-bikes could be the next ‘thing’

This is partly related to the item above. If we move further away from where we work and we do not want to ride on crowded buses, trains or subways — and you KNOW there is no place to park your car — then two-wheeled transportation may look more appealing.

In Europe, where they have just started back to work, retailers said e-bikes and e-scooters are selling out.

Electrek, a website that tracks the e-bike and scooter business, said:

VanMoof, a Dutch e-bike manufacturer that markets e-bikes all over the world, reported as early as last month that its sales had already risen since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Even as far back as February, the company saw its highest foot traffic ever at its flagship stores around the world in locations such as Paris and New York City. Then in March, the company recorded record-breaking online sales that were up almost 50% compared to the same period in the previous year, with visitors to its website up over 80%.

Arizona-based online e-bike retailer Lectric eBikes has reported a 140% increase in sales since March 15, which corresponds with the period that many states began lockdowns.

As always, be careful when reporting percentage increases. When a segment of a business is new, any increase in sales may amount to a big percentage increase while still representing a fairly small number of units sold. Ask questions.

The way we live now

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.