And as thousands of their workers were filing for unemployment benefits, these companies also rewarded their shareholders with more than $700 million in cash dividends. They are not alone. As the pandemic squeezes big companies, executives are making decisions about who will bear the brunt of the sacrifices, and in at least some cases, workers have been the first to lose, even as shareholders continue to collect.

Executives say the layoffs support the long-term health of their companies, and often the executives are giving up a piece of their salaries. Furloughed workers can apply for unemployment benefits. But distributing millions of dollars to shareholders while leaving many workers without a paycheck is unfair, critics argue, and belies the repeated statements from executives about their concern for employees’ welfare during the coronavirus crisis.

Caterpillar, for example, announced a $500 million distribution to shareholders April 8, about two weeks after indicating that operations at some plants would stop. The company declined to say how many workers are affected.