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Warehouse Workers Are on the Front Lines of the Covid Crisis. They’re Worried They’ll Be Passed Over for the Vaccine.

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As Hal­loween approached, Ronald Jack­son spent his days at a Chica­go-area ware­house for the Mars can­dy com­pa­ny ?“get­ting Hal­loween can­dy to Amer­i­ca.” After co-work­ers got Covid-19, Jack­son com­plained to man­age­ment about a lack of safe­ty pre­cau­tions. Rather than improv­ing pre­cau­tions, he said, the com­pa­ny fired Jack­son for an alleged infrac­tion that occurred months ago.

Such sit­u­a­tions are why work­ers and advo­cates are demand­ing the state of Illi­nois des­ig­nate ware­house work­ers as essen­tial work­ers and pri­or­i­tize them when Covid-19 vac­cines are dis­trib­uted. Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice and oth­er labor groups on Tuesday pub­lished a peti­tion to Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er mak­ing these demands. 

They note that ware­house work is essen­tial to the econ­o­my, includ­ing by dis­trib­ut­ing clean­ing sup­plies, per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and oth­er prod­ucts that are espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal dur­ing the pandemic.

Work­ers in ware­hous­es are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble because the struc­ture of ware­house work?—?where employ­ees are gen­er­al­ly hired through tem­po­rary staffing agen­cies with few pro­tec­tions or rights?—?makes it easy for the own­ers and oper­a­tors of ware­hous­es to ignore risks and fire or silence work­ers like Jack­son who speak up. The peti­tion to Pritzk­er says the 650,000 tem­po­rary staffing work­ers in Illi­nois are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and Lat­inx, mean­ing they are also among the groups at dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk for Covid-19infec­tions and com­pli­ca­tions. (There are also tem­po­rary work­ers in oth­er indus­tries, but many thou­sands are employed in the Chica­go area ware­house sector.)

“To devel­op an equi­table vac­ci­na­tion plan you have to ask who bears the brunt of the health and eco­nom­ic impact of the pan­dem­ic, and the answer will always be com­mu­ni­ties of col­or,” said Sophia Zaman, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the group Raise the Floor, a coali­tion of Chica­go work­ers centers. 

The Trump administration’s Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary, Alex Azar, said last month that while the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will issue rec­om­men­da­tions on vac­cine dis­tri­b­u­tion, it will be up to gov­er­nors to decide how to dis­trib­ute vac­cines and pri­or­i­tize recip­i­ents. The Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health has pub­lished guide­lines for local gov­ern­ments to ulti­mate­ly dis­trib­ute the vac­cine giv­en them by the state; mean­while, Chica­go will also receive vac­cines direct­ly from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Right now, ware­house work­ers are list­ed as a ?“pos­si­ble group to include” in Phase 2 of Illi­nois’ vac­cine roll­out when a ?“larg­er num­ber” of vac­cine dos­es is available.

There are sprawl­ing com­plex­es of ware­hous­es in sub­urbs and towns south­west and west of Chica­go, and increas­ing num­bers of ware­hous­es?—?includ­ing for Ama­zon?—?with­in the city lim­its. Many of the ware­house work­ers employed in the sub­urbs live in Chica­go, com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly from Lat­inx and Black com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard-hit by Covid-19. 

The governor’s office and Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about the peti­tion by the time this sto­ry was published. 

Dur­ing the governor’s dai­ly coro­n­avirus brief­ing on Decem­ber 8, pub­lic health depart­ment direc­tor Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, ?“While the vac­cine is com­ing, it’s not going to be as much as we want and won’t come out as quick­ly as we like. The first groups to receive the vac­cine will be our health care work­ers and also the res­i­dents of long-term care facil­i­ties… We’re pri­or­i­tiz­ing those at great­est risk of expo­sure and severe illness.”

Mark Balen­tine, a com­mu­ni­ty nav­i­ga­tor for Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, also worked at the Mars ware­house until April, when an acci­dent and his con­cerns about Covid-19 caused him to leave the job, he said. 

“Peo­ple are com­ing up pos­i­tive. There’s a chance you work right next to them on the floor and (man­agers) don’t warn you,” he said, not­ing that he found out one cowork­er had Covid-19 only when he called her on unre­lat­ed Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice busi­ness. ?“The bot­tom line with Mars was the dol­lar?—?they were more con­cerned with the dol­lar bill than with people’s health. I don’t believe in play­ing Russ­ian roulette with people’s lives like that.” 

(The U.S. media office for Mars did not respond to a request for comment.)

After being fired from Mars, Jack­son got work at anoth­er sub­ur­ban Chica­go ware­house that ships prod­ucts ?“from fan­cy chi­na to per­fume and every­thing else” for Wal­mart, Ama­zon and oth­er retail­ers. A Covid-19 out­break occurred and the ware­house shut down for about a week, Jack­son said, and he was required to get a test on his own time in order to return to the job that pays $14.50 an hour with no health insur­ance. Jack­son said work­ers still wor­ry they are at high risk of con­tract­ing Covid-19 since, he said, man­age­ment does lit­tle to pro­tect them. 

“They’re just hav­ing us sign a piece of paper say­ing they took our tem­per­a­ture,” he said. ?“It’s real­ly an unsafe work area, they’re not lis­ten­ing to the work­ers, they just want to move these products.” 

Even if he or oth­er work­ers are exposed to some­one with Covid-19, he said, they would like­ly keep going to work because they are not paid if they are quar­an­ti­ning. Balen­tine said his broth­er con­tin­ues to work at the Mars ware­house despite feel­ing at risk, since he needs the money. 

“You make this mon­ey and put it in the bank and now you’re not here to spend it, so what good is it?” said Balen­tine about his deci­sion to quit. He doesn’t believe the com­pa­nies oper­at­ing ware­hous­es will improve pro­tec­tions any time soon, hence the urgency for vac­cines for workers. 

“We need our doc­tors and nurs­es in order to take care of us, we need the health­care work­ers to go by the elder­ly folks and see that they’re straight, and you need the ware­house work­ers because every­thing comes from a ware­house?—?hand san­i­tiz­er, toi­let tis­sue, clean­ing sup­plies,” said Balen­tine. ?“You want to pro­tect (ware­house work­ers) to keep them working.”

Jack­son said that while he thinks ware­house work­ers should be deemed essen­tial and giv­en pri­or­i­ty access to vac­cines, he would him­self be reluc­tant to take it. 

“Me being Black and the way the gov­ern­ment has treat­ed Black peo­ple deal­ing with (med­ical care), I’m not sure I would take the vac­cine,” he said, cit­ing the infa­mous Tuskegee syphilis exper­i­ment, in which Black men were not giv­en ade­quate care or ful­ly informed about the trial. 

Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice has long tried to raise aware­ness of abus­es in the indus­try and demand reforms. The tem­po­rary staffing struc­ture means that work­ers have lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance or earn high­er wages, and can be fired for any rea­son. As a result, there has been lit­tle recourse for work­ers to address report­ed­ly ram­pant health and safe­ty prob­lems, dis­crim­i­na­tionand sex­u­al harassment. 

As with many inequities and injus­tices, the pan­dem­ic has just ampli­fied and cast light upon the long­stand­ing prob­lems with the ware­hous­ing indus­try, advo­cates and work­ers say. 

“It’s not just about Covid, it’s the way we’re dis­re­spect­ed and mis­treat­ed in these ware­hous­es,” said Balen­tine. ?“They look down on us. We’re treat­ed as invis­i­ble. But with­out ware­house work­ers, noth­ing happens.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.


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