Billionaires' net worths climbed by almost $1 trillion during the pandemic while their workers were put at risk

Jeff BezosJeff Bezos.
  • A report from the Institute for Policy Studies found that billionaires saw their wealth increase by almost $US1 trillion during the pandemic.
  • Meanwhile, thousands of the frontline workers they employ fell ill or did not receive hazard pay.
  • The report calls for increased hazard pay, among other measures.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) focuses on 12 billionaires who saw their fortunes skyrocket during the pandemic, while thousands of workers from their companies fell ill or did not receive hazard pay.

From March 2020 to November 2020, billionaires gained almost $US1 trillion in wealth. But, as the report outlines, those profits may come at the expense of the essential workers they employ.

For instance, John H. Tyson, the owner of Tyson Foods, has made over $US600 million during this timeframe. As Business Insider reported in August, more than 10,261 of the company’s workers have contracted COVID-19. A new CEO was appointed amidst one of the most “volatile and uncertain” periods in the company’s history.

The family member of a Tyson employee who died of COVID-19 is suing the company for wrongful death and claiming that a plant manager organised an office pool in April on how many workers would get infected. Iowa’s News Now reported that Tyson suspended the employees named in the lawsuit and began an internal investigation, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw the greatest growth in his wealth, making over $US70 billion. In October, Amazon said that almost 20,000 of its workers had tested positive for COVID.

Tyson and Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Chuck Collins, the director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at IPS and one of the report’s authors, told Business Insider that he was surprised by the “persistent steady increase” in billionaires’ fortunes. During the economic downturn from 2007 to 2009, he said, billionaires’ wealth went down along with everyone else. That’s not the case this time around.

“They’re essentially in a kind of a bubble setting,” Collins said. “But if you’re the CEO of a global company or you own a private equity company that owns a supermarket, you’re fine, your family is safe — to be dispatching your employees into risky environments without adequate protections would be embarrassing.”

A ‘disconnect’ between billionaires and their frontline workers

Collins said that he think there’s a “disconnect” between the ultrawealthy and the workers out on the front lines, and that may factor into why there hasn’t been as much support for those workers.

“I think there’s a race and class divide in America. The fact is, many of these essential frontline workers are Black and brown and female,” he said. “Many of the managers and decision-makers are wealthy, white, and physically disconnected from their workforce.”

An October report from the Brookings Institute looked into how — and if — hazard pay has continued throughout the pandemic. The report found that, on average, “workers at the top 20 retail companies have gone 126 days without hazard pay.”

While hazard pay ended at many companies during the summer, “since then, the pandemic has worsened but business has boomed.”

The IPS report emphasises the need for increased hazard pay, especially as case numbers soar to spring-level heights. But the conversation around hazard pay and supporting frontline workers isn’t at the same pitch as it was in March and April. Collins said that he thinks there’s some “pandemic fatigue” at play there, but that it’s important to “rally” and “recognise that those essential workers are still there.”

When asked if there are any billionaires who have done a good or noteworthy job during the pandemic, Collins paused.

“I think we need to do a survey to see if there’s some exemplary actors,” he said. “I’m sure there are a couple. I can’t think of any at the moment.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.