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Essential Workers Fight for Their Lives

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At a time of record unemployment, Cintya Medina feels lucky to have a job at the Barnes & Noble warehouse in Monroe, N.J.—but she does not want a job that puts her in danger.

When Medina and her coworkers learned of several confirmed Covid-19 cases at the warehouse, they organized a protest on April 7 to demand a two-week shutdown and full cleaning.

“If you continue to make workers like me go back to work, you’re not going to stop the spread of the virus because it’s highly contagious,” Medina tells In These Times in Spanish through a translator. She also questioned why the chain bookseller was forcing employees to come in at all: “It doesn’t make sense that we continue to be open because we’re not essential right now.” Businesses deemed essential, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, have special exceptions to operate during pandemic lockdown orders.

Medina is one of millions of workers who are stuck with the impossible choice between protecting their health and getting a paycheck. More than 20 million others cannot work at all, laid off from their jobs and left wrangling with their local unemployment office. Many are simply excluded from other benefits, all while the country hurtles toward a depression.

The workers faring best during the pandemic are those with high wages, access to healthcare, paid sick leave and the ability to work from home. But those benefits are exceedingly rare for much of the workforce, says Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank. The coronavirus crisis has “uncovered the weakness in our social safety net,” she says. More than 40% of workers are employed in low-wage jobs and some 28 million non-elderly adults lack health insurance. Moreover, federal data suggests only about 30% of workers have the ability to work from home—and the rate is even lower for black and Latino workers. 

Workers making poverty wages in precarious jobs were struggling to survive well before the pandemic. Now, besieged by economic devastation and a public health crisis, they are in a fight for their lives. Just as the virus has exposed the vicious inequities ingrained in the country’s economic hierarchy, so is it galvanizing workers to organize for safe workplaces, fair pay, decent medical leave and the right to challenge bosses who put them in harm’s way.

Low Pay, Essential Work

Jake Douglas made $14 an hour as a driver for United Airlines’ catering service at Denver International Airport, but he took a voluntary unpaid layoff in late March. His partner is immunocompromised, and Douglas worried about potentially getting infected. Ironically, his decision to try to protect his health could cost him his healthcare. Though Douglas remains on his employer-sponsored health plan, he has lost his income, is still waiting to get benefits from the state’s overwhelmed unemployment-claim system, and fears he might no longer be able to afford his health insurance payments. Meanwhile, he suffers from a longstanding shoulder injury that hampers his employment options.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to return to work without physical therapy at a minimum, but probably surgery,” he says. “And so I’m just really nervous … I do not know what I’m going to be able to do to survive this thing if it drags on.”

Douglas’ economic precarity is shared by millions of laid-off workers, who are disproportionately women, black or Latino.

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says the economic devastation of the coronavirus will “be tremendously damaging for lower-wage workers, who tend to not have savings and assets to withstand economic shocks like this.”

The CARES Act—the federal stimulus package passed in late March—was intended to cushion the job losses precipitated by the pandemic. Its expansions of unemployment assistance include an extra $600 tacked onto state unemployment benefits, plus an unprecedented extension of assistance to the self-employed, such as Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig workers.

But Shierholz argues unemployment insurance is not an ideal way to deliver relief to dislocated workers. Mass layoffs, she says, would ultimately slow down the recovery, by requiring businesses to rebuild their workforce from scratch as they reopen. “It’s incredibly better for both workers and businesses to furlough but not lay off,” she says. “But we don’t really have a culture of holding onto workers during a downturn and then just bringing them back online after the downturn is over.”

Several European governments have opted to preserve jobs by subsidizing companies to keep workers on their payrolls. By contrast, the U.S. relief package offered an extremely limited pool of supplementary loans for small businesses to avoid laying off staff (which was quickly exhausted, and hastily replenished), while hundreds of billions of dollars were funneled into massive hotel, retail and supermarket corporations—largely free of any concrete mandates to retain workers.

In other words, lawmakers have opted to make unemployment more bearable rather than compel employers to furlough workers and preserve their livelihoods.

Even workers who receive several hundred dollars a week in unemployment benefits could be devastated by the loss of their employer-sponsored healthcare.

The coronavirus “really lays bare the inhumanity of employer-sponsored health insurance,” says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates some 3.5 million laid-off workers lost their employer-sponsored health plans between mid-March and early April—just as their families (who likely shared those health plans) will need care to deal with the growing public health crisis.

None of the federal stimulus acts have expanded healthcare coverage, aside from providing funds for hospitals and testing, although Democratic lawmakers have proposed expansions of Medicaid and of some private insurance coverage.

Givan emphasizes that millions of workers never had insurance in the first place for myriad reasons, whether they were undocumented, or their jobs never offered it, or they couldn’t afford it. Many are still working without healthcare, often in frontline jobs that expose them to health risks every day, as they staff grocery stores, clean hospitals and deliver goods.

“We’re saying, ‘Do this job that’s essential to the functioning of our society … and you will risk being infected with this virus,’ ” Givan says. “And if that happens, you’ll be left with large bills or with no access to care, whether that’s because you’re undocumented, uninsured or under-insured.”

Underpaid Heroes

A worker’s ability to stay healthy amid the pandemic hinges on their ability to take time off without sacrificing their wages. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, seven in 10 low-wage workers did not have a single paid sick day. The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides two weeks of paid leave for full-time employees affected by Covid-19. Additionally, the CARES Act temporarily extends federal family medical leave laws to provide workers with limited wage replacement for the care of a child, for up to 12 weeks.

But again, the protections are patchy. The paid leave and child care provisions exclude private employers with 500 or more employees and allow an exemption for firms with fewer than 50 employees. These carve-outs could effectively exclude up to 106 million private-sector workers, including millions of the poorest.

Josh (a pseudonym to protect him from employer retaliation) is a Walmart pharmacy assistant in Illinois and a self-described “Walmart baby”—the son of Walmart employees. He fears that, while keeping the nation’s largest retailer operating, he and his parents are exposed daily to hazardous conditions. Although workers have some protective equipment, he says, what they really need is adequate paid leave to protect themselves and their families.

In March, Walmart announced a new two-week paid leave policy for employees who test positive for the virus—but it excludes workers who, for example, are immunocompromised or tending to ill family members. Josh, who is part of the worker advocacy group United for Respect, notes that people are reluctant to actually use what paid leave they have in fear of “repercussion from management.”

“For [my parents] to not be treated and protected on a daily basis … just irks me to the highest degree,” Josh says. He suggests workers be compensated with hazard pay, so they can at least have their “essential” role reflected in their paycheck.

“[People say] we’re heroes and everything—but it doesn’t feel like we’re heroes,” Josh adds. “It feels like we don’t have a choice.” With hazard pay, “at least [workers] might get a little bit of solace in knowing that, ‘Hey, I’m working during this. My job’s important.’ Helping people is definitely worth more than $8 an hour.”

Demanding A Just Workplace

Some workers in high-risk jobs are banding together to demand their bosses do more to keep them safe.

Jordan Flowers, a worker at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island, protested alongside coworkers in late March and early April to demand the company close its workplace until it could be fully sanitized, as reports emerged that as many as 25 workers had contracted Covid-19. “We’re in a warehouse of 5,000 people,” Flowers says. “You never know who is sick.”

The walkouts at JFK8 followed similar actions at Chicago and Detroit Amazon facilities, and were part of a national campaign to expand paid leave policies for affected workers. (Amazon provides two weeks of paid leave only for employees diagnosed or quarantined with Covid-19.)

Workers who help secure the nation’s food supply are also demanding respect and fatter paychecks.

Unionized grocery workers with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have successfully pressured several large supermarket chains and food producers to secure hazard pay, extra sanitation provisions and paid leave for hundreds of thousands of members. Workers at non-unionized chains, such as Trader Joe’s, are also campaigning for improved safety protections and hazard pay. (Trader Joe’s has made some reforms, like additional paid leave, but at the same time, sent employees a strident antiunion letter to deter organizing.) Meanwhile, Instacart workers—who provide home grocery delivery services for various outlets—went on strikein late March to demand safety equipment and $5 per order in hazard pay.

Meat-processing workers have mobilized to refuse work at claustrophobic plants where hundreds of Covid-19 cases have surfaced. An estimated 830 workers at the JBS USA meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, called off work en masse, and about 50 Perdue chicken-processing workers walked off the job in late March. After some plants temporarily shuttered following outbreaks, President Trump ordered in late April that they remain open as a “critical industry.”

Some of the lowest-paid food service workers are agitating for better safety protections as well. In early April, McDonald’s workers staged protests and walkouts in Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities to demand hazard pay and adequate safeguards. In San Jose, 26-year-old drive-through worker Irving Garza staged an informal strike with several coworkers to demand hazard pay and safety gear. Customers are constantly hovering within a few feet of his window, most not wearing masks. “I’m breathing the same air that they’re breathing … so I’m putting myself at a big risk,” he says.

Some companies, including Amazon, Instacart, JBS USA, Perdue, McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble, have introduced new safety measures, such as more intensive cleaning, masks and social-distancing rules, and in a few cases, provided additional paid sick leave for Covid-19.

But, fundamentally, workers are standing up for something more: a voice. In terms of physically safeguarding workers’ health, Givan explains, employers can offer protections at their discretion, but “anything that’s given by the good grace of the employer can be taken away just as easily.”

During the McDonald’s protests, the company announced plans to increase safety protections at its restaurants, including distributing masks and hand sanitizer—though it admitted the rollout was still in process at its restaurants, most of which are independently operated franchisees. As of mid-April, protests continued. Garza, who relies on his fast-food job to support his mother and several siblings, returned to work after his manager provided additional safety equipment, but since going on strike, his hours were cut in half.

“McDonald’s should listen to its workers … because they are all at the bottom of the pyramid,” he says. To the bosses, he says, “And we’re not serving you. You are serving us, because we’re the ones that are working. We’re the ones who are making the sales happen, who are working on the line … so just listen to the workers.”

No Papers, No Relief

Many of the workers hardest hit by the pandemic, whether they are laid off or soldiering on in their essential jobs, will receive no support from federal relief legislation—because they are undocumented.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, some 6 million immigrant workers—both with and without legal status—work in “frontline industries,” such as healthcare and manufacturing medicine and soap. Immigrant workers, a large share of them undocumented, hold about a quarter of construction and extraction jobs. Yet undocumented workers are excluded from most federal benefits programs.

So people like Fredy Moreno, an undocumented construction worker in the Twin Cities, won’t get the $1,200 stimulus check other households look forward to. But he has bigger worries, like the more than $13,000 he says he is owed by a previous employer. With the economic downturn compounding his prior employer’s wage theft, Moreno is desperate to get back to work despite the health risks.

“I don’t have the rent,” Moreno says through a Spanish translator. “I don’t have money to buy food for my family. I have a small child. … I don’t have money to go out and buy diapers—if there are even diapers to go buy. It’s been pretty difficult.”

With construction jobs drying up, Moreno laments the exclusion of undocumented workers, who contribute roughly $27 billion in local, state and federal taxes annually, from the federal relief package. “I think that we should be included,” he says, “because we also work, and we also pay taxes … and I think our families also matter.”

While the federal relief package shuts out undocumented workers, several immigrant-focused labor groups, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Make the Road New York and Alianza Agrícola, have launched relief funds for workers or pressed state lawmakers to help undocumented workers access aid. In mid-April, NDLON sent a “protest caravan” to California’s statehouse. A day later, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide $125 million relief fund for immigrant workers, regardless of status.

Viral Resistance

Some labor advocates hope the pandemic, and the worker uprisings it is spurring, could compel policymakers, employers and the public to address critical gaps in the welfare system and to start to give frontline workers the respect and fair compensation their essential labor deserves.

The crisis might ultimately “create a moment in the public dialogue and in the political imagination about the choices that we’re making,” says Wendy ChunHoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work, an advocacy group focused on paid leave policies. “Because we could value childcare and care jobs, and the entire care infrastructure … as [equally] important as the carveouts that we’re giving [to] large corporations right now. It’s a choice that we’re making as a country—we could choose differently.”

Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the pandemic “has exposed fundamental basic contradictions in the way public policy has been formulated to benefit the narrow interest of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, at the expense of the vast majority.” He adds the ongoing economic devastation could spur “public demand to address some of these basic structural issues within our society” to provide “a sustainable standard of living for working people.”

Right now, most workers are focused on protecting their health and feeding their families. But the momentum of grassroots organizing in the face of Covid-19 could eventually inspire more workers to form unions, call for comprehensive family-leave policies and demand employers protect jobs through arrangements like work-sharing, which allows employers to use the unemployment system to reduce work hours while avoiding layoffs.

General Electric workers recently agitated at plants in Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia, not only for health protections at work but for jobs that protect the health of others. As members of the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America, they demanded better sanitary conditions and expanded paid leave, along with the conversion of factories where workers have been laid off—which usually produce industrial parts, such as generators and jet engines—to manufacture respirators for coronavirus patients.

Douglas, the former airline-catering employee, is organizing with other airport and service-industry workers under the banner of the Denver Democratic Socialists of America to pressure the city and state government to cancel rent, mortgage and utility bills for 90 days. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a similar federal bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments, which has been co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), among others.

“All of us feel that if we can’t work, we can’t pay,” Douglas says. As more residents are laid off, then “there’s a tipping point and a crisis coming regardless, and our local elected officials need to do everything they can to support us right now, because the system can’t sustain itself.”

The economy “will never be what it was before,” says Erica Smiley, executive director of the workers’ rights group Jobs with Justice, but says the labor movement has a chance to organize for a more just future. “The question is, will [post-pandemic society] be reorganized to continue to move more resources to those at the top? … Or will it be forever changed in a way that more ordinary people are put into positions to make decisions about our general health and well-being as a society?” Smiley says.

“It will be a fight either way.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a historian based in New York City, a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored podcast.


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