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New York City holds parade honoring essential workers—but many essential workers boycott

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Wednesday was “a day to celebrate and appreciate the heroes who often go unsung,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month in announcing a parade to honor the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to sing about them this day.” 

Many of the workers, though, feel so unappreciated that they boycotted the parade supposedly held in their honor, saying a better way to honor them would be with better pay and working conditions. One of the groups with the biggest complaint is emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Those workers, who are more than half people of color and more than a quarter women, are paid dramatically less than firefighters, three out of four of whom are white and 99% of whom are male—and the truly essential role they played in the pandemic response did not stop de Blasio from opposing a move toward pay parity.

“A parade does not bring this workforce out of the poverty wages they are now being paid,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a union that represents more than 4,000 first responders, told the New York Daily News, describing attendance at the parade as like crossing a picket line. “It is far past time that the city gives this workforce the respect they deserve in livable wages. If taxpayer dollars can be allocated to put on this parade, then Mayor de Blasio, you can easily find the means to financially support our FDNY EMT’s, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the city since before the pandemic, and the city appears to remain intent on treating these workers as second-class first responders.

Another union representing social workers, contact tracers, health inspectors, and other workers similarly boycotted the parade, citing struggles to get personal protective equipment during the pandemic and saying in a statement, “To participate in a parade is an injustice to how we have been treated and continue to be treated. The Early Retirement Incentive was not passed, and Essential Worker pay seems to have disappeared.”

The parade included 14 floats and 260 groups of essential workers, including first responders (some of them, anyway), child care workers, transit workers, delivery workers, and more. Funeral industry workers who had to deal with the many, many bodies the pandemic produced were initially left out, then included after protest.

Eric Adams, the newly announced winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, did attend the parade, telling reporters, “We need to honor them [essential workers] with pay equity … we need to show them the respect they deserve.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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ABB, EPI, and NELP Release Toolkit For Advocates and Policymakers On Model Policies Local Governments Can Implement to Raise Standards For Frontline Workers During COVID and Beyond

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Washington, DC— Today, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), A Better Balance (ABB), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a toolkit for advocates and policymakers featuring four model policies that cities and counties can implement immediately to respond to workers’ calls for safety and dignity on the job—in the pandemic and beyond. The four model policies would advance premium pay, paid sick days, COVID-19 worker health and safety, and protection against retaliation.

Over a year into the COVID-19 crisis, federal law still does not guarantee workers premium pay for working on the frontlines during emergencies; the right to paid days off when they or family members are sick; enforceable COVID-19 health and safety protections; and adequate protection against being punished for speaking up on the job about unsafe conditions or violations of their rights. Far too many state laws and corporate policies also fall short when it comes to these standards.

Occupational segregation has disproportionately pushed Black and Latinx workers, the majority of them women, into underpaid, yet always essential, jobs that are now on the frontlines of the pandemic. Across the country, workers of color have tied their demands for pandemic protections to fights for racial, gender, and economic justice.

While the Biden administration has begun to address some of the gaps the Trump administration and Congress left in responding to our communities’ calls, a chasm remains. But city and county governments can step in right now to enact laws and policies that will help keep workers and the public safe during the ongoing pandemic and beyond. The new model policy toolkit from NELP, ABB, and EPI includes four model laws that cities and counties can and must adopt to heed workers’ calls:Emergency premium pay for frontline workers; a permanent right to paid sick leave with additional time off during a declared public health emergency; health and safety protections for certain frontline workers who will not be protected by upcoming OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for COVID-19 , including app-based workers and domestic workers; and anti-retaliation protections to ensure workers can speak up about job conditions and enforce their rights safely during this crisis and after. This, too, is about racial justice—a recent survey from NELP found that Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to report that they or someone at work may have been punished or fired for raising concerns about COVID-19 spreading in the workplace.

The model laws in the toolkit are designed so localities can adapt them to meet local needs.

“The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the laws ensuring the safety of workers, unemployed people, and our communities overall are woefully inadequate. And because our lives are all so deeply intertwined, what affects one worker affects all of us—when a grocery store cashier doesn’t feel safe bringing up concerns about lacking COVID-19 safety precautions at work, and then workers get sick, the spread continues into the community. Unfortunately, we are not out of this yet, and cities must hear workers’ calls and step in now,” says NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon.

“Without paid sick leave and strong workplace health and safety standards, millions of individuals around the country are forced to sacrifice their personal and family health, or risk their income when they need it most. At A Better Balance, through our free legal helpline, we hear every day from working individuals whose experiences show how the pandemic has sharply exacerbated our nation’s longstanding crisis of care, with especially harsh consequences for low-wage workers and women of color. Local governments have a critical role to play in passing robust policies to protect workers’ health and safety and enable them to care for themselves and their loved ones,” says A Better Balance Co-Founder and Co-President Sherry Leiwant.

“Strong economies require standards that ensure workers are safe and paid fairly. Over the past year, people in frontline jobs have put their lives on the line with little bargaining power to demand higher pay or safer workplaces. They deserve basic protections to keep them and their families safe, as well as pay that compensates them for the added risk they’re taking in order to keep the economy going,” says EPI Senior Economic Analyst David Cooper.

Ultimately, the pandemic has laid bare how deeply structural racism and long-standing anti-worker policy impacts every corner of our society—and how little our laws protect workers, and especially workers of color in underpaid, frontline jobs. But there is also a tremendous opportunity here: Local governments can play a critical role in building a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, by taking steps to advance worker and community safety and dignity, during this crisis and beyond.

Download the model local policy toolkit now

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This blog originally appeared at NELP on April 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About A Better Balance 

A Better Balance, a national, nonprofit advocacy organization, uses the power of the law to advance justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security. To learn more, visit abetterbalance.org and follow A Better Balance on Twitter @ABetterBalance.

About the Economic Policy Institute

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security.To achieve this goal, EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America. EPI proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers and assesses policies with respect to how they affect those workers.

About National Employment Law Project
The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048

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Tekele Abraha does not run marathons, but she wears Hoka shoes. This thick-soled choice of elite runners can cost more than $150a pair, nearly a day’s pay for Abraha, who wears them to cushion the long hours she spends on concrete floors, six days a week. She hopes the shoes will stave off the grinding joint and back pain that afflicts many of her coworkers. 

Abraha is a grocery worker. The shoes mark one of many unseen tolls of her job. 

We talk in an airless, subterranean breakroom at Safeway store 1048 in Arlington, Va., a typical, prosperous suburb of Washington, D.C. The low-slung store sits partially submerged next to an underground parking garage on the main drag of the Rosslyn neighborhood, full of gleaming office buildings and apartment towers that look like office buildings. The store’s staff is as diverse as Embassy Row, just across the Potomac River: Black and white, Eastern European, East African. 

Abraha, a 42-year-old single mother of two, grew up in poverty in Ethiopia with her mother and four brothers, unable to afford three meals a day. She came to the United States at 17, without knowing English, and worked three fast food jobs. Sometimes, she slept in a McDonald’s to save time. Eventually, Abraha scraped together $15,000, enough to buy her mother a six-bedroom house in Ethiopia, which fills her with pride. 

For the past 18 years, Abraha has worked at Safeway. Six days a week, late into the night, she helps run the front of the store. Her diligence is matched by the toll it has taken on her during the pandemic. In fear of bringing home coronavirus, she has not kissed her two college-age children since March 2020, even though they live with her. 

“Every time I go home, I was insecure,” she says. ?“I thought, ?‘I’m gonna take something with me. I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna lose my children.’” Tears well up in her eyes when she contemplates the past year. But she is not one to complain. 

“I don’t have any choice,” she says. ?“That’s life. I have to pay the bills.” 

For many people, the past year has been a shocking break from the normal rhythms of their personal and professional lives. And then there are grocery workers. 

The lives of grocery workers have continued as usual, but with an added dose of deadly risk. They never really signed up for it. Though less celebrated than nurses or paramedics, grocery workers are quintessential frontline workers?—?the ones who have kept showing up so the rest of us can survive. 

Like their counterparts across the country, the employees of Safeway 1048have kept on working through a dangerous year. Their employer has given them mask policies, more cleaning in stores and a fleeting dose of hazard pay, but their lived experience has shown them the safety net has holes big enough to fall through. The experience has left many of them bitter. 

Safeway is neither an outlier on safety issues nor a uniquely bad employer. It has given out personal protective equipment and established a contact-tracing program with up to two weeks of quarantine pay. The company also says it intends to offer the vaccine to every worker as soon as their city or county makes it available to grocery workers. The workers at Safeway 1048, despite being eligible per state guidelines, had not been offered the vaccine by early March. (The company said that ?“our pharmacies in northern Virginia are under the direction of the [Virginia Department of Health] not to vaccinate anyone under the age of 65.”) 

A review of policies at some of Safeway’s biggest direct competitors?—?Walmart and Costco, as well as grocery conglomerates Kroger, Publix and Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop)?—?shows that Safeway’s policies on hazard pay, sick leave, masks, worker safety and vaccinations are very much in line with the industry. It almost seems as if the grocery industry’s employers, customers and regulators have settled on a set of standards without bothering to ask the workers whether they think those standards are adequate. 

The one thing Safeway’s workers have going for them is their union. They have seniority rights, pay minimums, guaranteed vacations, a grievance procedure and other basic protections their non-union counterparts lack. Safeway has been unionized since at least 1935, when it signed an agreement with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which later merged with the Retail Clerks International to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Today, more than 6,000 Safeway workers in D.C. and the surrounding states are part of UFCW Local 400. Since Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, no worker is required to pay union dues; about three-quarters of the 65 employees at Safeway 1048 are dues-paying members. 

Their longtime union rep is Heith Fenner, a solicitous, ruddy-faced man who roams the store greeting everyone by name and checking in on new issues weekly. A former grocery worker who has served as a union rep at seven different grocery chains, Fenner is a virtual encyclopedia of the industry’s problems. 

“Safeway runs a skeleton crew,” he says. ?“They run almost short-handed, particularly in key positions. When you get a small [Covid-19] outbreak in the store, that leaves you shorthanded. Even worse, it becomes a catastrophe for trying to run the store when you have four or five people out.” 

It is not hard to imagine how this corporate dedication to reducing costs could create a strong disincentive for Safeway to pay close attention to safety measures, because safety measures can be expensive. Paid sick leave while workers quarantine will inevitably raise labor costs. Employees say, over the past year, their store’s management has shown little institutional concern for worker health and safety, consistently prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over the lives of workers.

Anthony Sistrunk, a fast-talking, 39-year-old D.C. native who has worked for Safeway since he was 17, had a rough 2020. 

“The year started off fucked up,” Sistrunk remembers. In January 2020, just as he was coming off a cancer scare, he had to have his appendix removed. He returned to work after recovering, but one day soon after he felt so dizzy he went home after only a couple of hours. He slept all day, woke up at night feeling bad and passed out on his floor. After a trip to the emergency room, Sistrunk got the bad news: He was the first employee of Safeway 1048 to test positive for Covid. 

Dehydrated, coughing and his head throbbing, Sistrunk went on Facebook and made a quick post so his friends and coworkers would know he tested positive. He was primarily concerned about the health of his coworkers?—?masks were not yet mandatory, even for employees. 

“And then,” Sistrunk says, ?“all hell broke loose.” 

Shortly after his social media post, he says, he received a call from the Safeway human resources department, asking pointedly if he was ?“badmouthing” the company. 

“I was offended,” Sistrunk says. ?“I felt like Safeway was trying to stop any kind of bad media. They didn’t want any kind of uproar.” 

Sistrunk was so sick he didn’t return to work for seven weeks. He lost his sense of taste and smell and had trouble breathing. ?“The worst thing was the fatigue,” he says. ?“I felt like someone snatched my soul.” 

Fenner called him every other day to check in. Sistrunk did receive paid sick leave?—?two-thirds of his average wage?—?as a benefit of his union health insurance plan. ?“God forbid if you’re not a union member,” Sistrunk says with the tone of someone looking back on a narrowly avoided disaster. ?“You’re screwed.” 

When Sistrunk began with the company 22 years ago, he says it felt like an exclusive and highly valued job. He had to write an essay with his application about why he wanted to work there. There were employee outings: summer cookouts, bowling parties, crab feasts. But all of that faded away as the years went by and, it seemed to Sistrunk, management focused more and more intensely on profits. He sounds wistful when he reflects on his years there. ?“It’s not that family bond anymore,” he says.

Safeway is one of 20 grocery chains owned by Albertsons Companies, whose biggest investor is the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, named for the three-headed dog of Greek mythology that guards the gates of hell to make sure no one gets out. According to Andrew Whelan, a spokesperson for Albertsons, ?“When we learn that an associate has a confirmed case of Covid-19, our crisis response team conducts a close contacts investigation and may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine.” The company offers up to 80 hours of ?“quarantine pay” for those who meet its standards. Whelan says the store is ?“appropriately staffed.” 

Safeway uses the definition of ?“close contact” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person per day. It’s an extremely high bar in a store where everyone is moving around. Consequently, employees and the union say management at Safeway 1048 rarely tells a worker to quarantine. 

I got a firsthand view of this dynamic in action. When I went to the store to talk with workers, nearly everyone was discussing that an employee from the cut-fruit section had tested positive. I saw where the fruit-cutting happens: a windowless corner of steel tables in back by the breakroom, where several people work at once. If I worked in such close quarters with a Covid-positive person, I would certainly be worried. 

Fenner says, after management was alerted to the situation by the union, they ?“cleaned and sanitized” the store but did not order any quarantines or alert employees to the positive test. Whelan disputes this, saying that one employee was quarantined due to ?“close contact.” Whelan also says the company informs the staff when an employee tests positive, but workers say they usually hear through word of mouth or from the union.

Then there is the matter of customers who shop without masks. Every employee I spoke with cited this persistent minority of customers as a threat to their health, particularly because workers are not empowered to do anything about the situation except to offer a mask to customers. 

“I’ve been called ?‘bitch’ so many times” for asking customers to wear a mask, Abraha says. ?“I wish the company took it seriously.” 

The Safeway store does not have a security guard, meaning regular workers and supervisors become de facto security guards and mask-checkers. Calling the police doesn’t feel like an option. ?“By the time you call the cops,” Sistrunk says, the maskless shoppers ?“are out of here.” 

Whelan acknowledges that while the store has signs telling customers to wear masks, ?“If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk.” 

Jason Winbush, a bearded, 44-year-old food clerk who has been at Safeway for 28 years, has a wife and five children at home. The combination of management’s failure to alert employees directly about positive tests or to find a way to make customers wear masks has convinced him the company does ?“not at all” take the safety of its workers seriously. Winbush has even used some of his vacation days to get time away from the store because the mask situation worried him so much. 

“It’s starting to get [to be] too much,” Winbush says. ?“It’s stressful. Very stressful. It’s written on the wall: Money is more important than your employees. And that’s not right, cause you don’t know if we have preexisting conditions, if my kids have preexisting conditions.”

Stuart Allison, a man with a pleasant Southern drawl and the enormous hands of a heavyweight boxer, has been cutting meat at Safeway 1048 for 25 years. That is less than half of the time he has been working for Safeway, where he began as a meat cutter in 1968. (After more than a half-century with the company, Allison makes $24 an hour.) He is 79, works six 8?hour shifts a week, exercises regularly and appears perfectly capable of wrestling a man half his age. 

Allison remembers seeing people die during a flu epidemic in the 1940s, and those experiences have left him a remarkably calm person. Even though Allison contracted a mild case of Covid in summer 2020, he has never allowed the events of the past year to throw him into a panic. ?“Things come up like that; they don’t disturb me,” he says. ?“Whatever it is, I just take it. I guess I’m more a positive thinker than a negative thinker. This is not my first time being around a virus.” 

But even Allison, a pinnacle of equanimity who has little fear for his own health, finds his hackles raised by what he sees as management’s lax attitude toward customers shopping without masks in the midst of a pandemic. ?“They were saying, ?‘You gotta wait on people that don’t have masks on,’” Allison says. ?“I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ?‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ?‘em.’”

The stress over worker health reached a high mark in the days surrounding the January 6 Trump rally and storming of the U.S. Capitol. Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters who had come to Washington for the event stayed in the hotels that dot the blocks around the Safeway in Rosslyn. Many of them came into the store with an aggressive disregard for safety. 

“We had a really rough time that week,” says Michele Miler, a 61-year-old file maintenance manager who has served as Safeway 1048’s union shop steward for the past 25 years. ?“They were coming in without no mask.” 

In fact, the employees I spoke with remember the week of January 6 as one in which they were left to fend for themselves. As our nation’s political insanity invaded their workplace, some workers say they refused to serve maskless Trump supporters; one says she just argued with the maskless and endured insults; most said they were constantly uncomfortable and disappointed that Safeway did nothing to save them. 

Sistrunk says that when he asked a manager to intervene, the response was that the company didn’t want bad press in an age when everyone has a cell phone. 

Abraha says some of the Trump supporters ignored her request to wear a mask; one even handed her his used mask and demanded she throw it away for him. ?“If I call the police, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because of politics,” Abraha says. ?“What about if I lose my job? … It’s crazy.”I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ‘em.’” —Stuart Allison

The pandemic has been good for business at grocery stores. Everyone remembers the empty shelves in spring 2020 as people stocked up, just in case. Albertsons saw its sales rise a remarkable 47% in March of 2020; by December, year-over-year sales were still running 12% higher. All of these sales were enabled by the fact that thousands of grocery workers, just like those at Safeway 1048, continued to come to work, putting their own health at risk to ensure stores could sell food. 

What did those workers get in return? At Safeway, they got a $2 ?“hazard pay” wage bonus from March 15 to June 13, 2020, with two one-time bonuses adding up to about $350 for full-time employees (less for part-timers, the vast majority of the workers). In other words, hazard pay ended when the country was seeing around 22,000 new daily cases of the coronavirus. Even when cases rose to 300,000 per day by January 2021?—?a 1,264% increase in risk?—?hazard pay never came back. 

Whelan, the Albertsons spokesperson, justified this discrepancy by saying, ?“We are not currently offering appreciation pay at this time because businesses large and small across our operating areas have reopened and resumed operations.” 

This argument is a bit of sleight of hand?—?right down to the use of the phrase ?“appreciation pay” rather than hazard pay. First, state governments ignored public health risks and reduced business restrictions (which fueled Covid surges and increased the number of hazards for workers). Then, companies used those policies as an excuse not to take more action or offer workers more compensation. Poof: Thanks to poor public health policies, businesses made their own obligations disappear. 

The flagrant hypocrisy of praising frontline workers as heroes while denying them payment for their heroic work is a textbook example of corporate greed and the primacy that shareholders have over labor. 

And that so few grocery workers emerged from 2020 with long-term raises is a textbook example of union workers squandering their labor leverage. The moment certainly marks a national failure by the UFCW, the nation’s biggest food and retail union, which has been unable to secure any real lasting gains for its members, even as public regard for grocery workers soared. 

Every Safeway employee I spoke with thought that, at a minimum, the $2 hazard pay increase should have become permanent. They wish everyone would wear a mask. They wish they did not have to rely on word of mouth to learn someone from work has Covid. 

They live in fear of getting their families sick. They rise at 4 a.m., work six days a week and casually discuss the many ways the job has destroyed their bodies. 

They do this whole routine for decades for, if they are lucky, a $20 wage. 

If they had stopped?—?if they had shut down the nation’s groceries?—?there would have been panic. But they worked. 

We ate.

From the perspective of the workers themselves, 2020 was a year of swallowing harsh insult after harsh insult. When I asked Marilyn Williams, who has worked at Safeway 1048 for the past eight years, what she thought of the quick disappearance of hazard pay, she paused for a long moment, then said, ?“Ha. Ha. 

“That’s my reaction. 

“Ha. Ha.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The ‘Trashman’ Who Became an Influencer

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In the latest instalment of ?“Working People,” we sit down and chat with (former) Philly sanitation worker and Instagram sensation Terrill Haigler?—?or, as listeners may know him, ?“Ya Fav Trashman.” Terrill’s incredible and inspiring story took an interesting turn during the Covid-19 pandemic when he was working for the Philly sanitation department and started an Instagram account where he would post updates from the job and answer residents’ questions about trash pickup. With his platform, Terrill has helped spread awareness of the hard work sanitation workers do, the conditions they face, and what residents can do to clean up their neighborhoods. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Essential Workers Deserve $15 An Hour

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I’m one of America’s millions of essential workers. We’re working in your children’s schools, at your grocery stores, and at drive-through windows. We’re cleaning your homes.

And we’re struggling so hard to make ends meet.

Congress is debating whether to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Experts say this would raise wages for 32 million workers like me.

Supporters had hoped to pass the increase as part of the COVID-19 relief package, but an obscure parliamentary rule says they can’t. Now supporters in Congress will have to decide how hard they’ll fight for us.

I want to share a bit about what it’s like to work for less than a living wage — especially during this pandemic.

In my last job, I sold vacuums door to door. My coworkers and I had to go into strangers’ houses to demonstrate the equipment. But our company didn’t provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and it didn’t require employees or clients to socially distance or wear masks.

Eventually, I caught COVID-19. Instead of supporting me, my manager repeatedly questioned me for quarantining. I didn’t want to risk my life for a low-wage job with no benefits, so I left.

Now I work two low-wage jobs, but neither has benefits. The safety precautions are a little better, but as a home care worker, I’m caring for patients who may or may not wear masks.

It’s especially stressful because I live with my mom, who’s in several high-risk categories. My two jobs aren’t enough to afford an apartment with utilities, furniture, and other expenses, so we’re living in a hotel.

The pandemic made this harder, but the truth is that it’s always been hard — I’m 23 and I’ve already had too many jobs to count. I keep changing jobs to escape poverty wages, harassment, discrimination, exploitation, danger, and a lack of health care. Wherever I go, it doesn’t seem to get better.

This isn’t right. And that’s why I’ve learned to fight back.

When I was working at McDonald’s for $7.25 an hour a few years ago, a co-worker told me she was going to a rally for the Fight for $15 campaign. I asked to go along. It was an amazing experience. We were all there for each other, working for structural change so that we don’t have to live this way. So no one does.

I started dedicating my life to achieving a living wage, union rights, and health care for all. And right now, we’re so close to $15.

Some lawmakers don’t think essential workers like me need a livable wage. I want to tell them they’re wrong. We’re the ones taking care of your ailing parents, teaching your kids, and putting food on your table.

My mom and I deserve a place to call our own. My fellow low-wage workers deserve to be able to buy good food, get quality healthcare, and securely house their families in exchange for their hard and often dangerous work.

Even before the pandemic, 140 million Americans were poor or low-income. Now the economy is down 10 million jobs since the pandemic hit, and at least 8 million more of us are living in poverty.

I don’t want to have to struggle so hard to survive. I don’t want that for anyone. We’ll need more than a living wage to make ends meet for all of us — we’ll need stronger unions and better health care, too — but fair pay for hard work would be a great place to start.

The minimum wage must be raised to $15 an hour. Join the Fight for $15 where you live, and call on your representatives to make it happen. Together we can make this a reality.

This blog originally appeared at Our Future on March 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eshawney Gaston is an essential worker and a leader with NC Raise Up, the North Carolina branch of Fight for $15 and a Union. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.


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Grocery workers, heroes of the pandemic, left out on vaccinations, this week in the war on workers

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“Grocery workers say they can’t get coronavirus vaccines, even as they help distribute them,” the Washington Post headline reads. But as the story makes clear, grocery workers don’t “say” they can’t get vaccines. They can’t. Unless they are elderly or have comorbidities in addition to being grocery workers—i.e., unless they are eligible for vaccination for reasons other than being among the front-line workers who have kept us all going this last nearly a year—grocery workers don’t get vaccination priority except in 13 states. Meanwhile, pharmacies in some grocery stores are administering the vaccinations the workers can’t get.

“Of course health-care workers should get the vaccine first, that’s not a question,” one California worker said. “But how many people am I exposed to in a day? Hundreds. Sick or well? I don’t know. Customers come in with masks under their nose, sipping their coffee as they walk around.”

In 11 states there’s no plan to give grocery workers any priority for vaccination, while in Tennessee they’re at the same priority level as overnight camp counselors.

###

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Essential workers fear not just for their own health, but for their families

In recent weeks, essential workers have been pushed down the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations in states including California and Massachusetts, a decision that is likely to cost lives among the people we rely on to keep us fed and keep the economy going. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco shows a big spike in excess death among these workers in 2020.

There was a 22% increase in deaths over all adults aged 18 to 65 in California last year, the researchers found. But among food and agricultural workers, the increase was 39%. For Latino adults overall, the increase in deaths was 36%. For Latino food and agriculture workers, it was 59%. For Black working-age adults, the increase was 28%, and for Black retail workers, it was 36%. Asian Americans also saw a big jump in one profession, from 18% excess mortality for everyone working age to 40% for healthcare workers.

White Californians got off easy—6% excess mortality for everyone age 18 to 65 and 16% for food and agriculture workers. That’s a ridiculously large difference.

The danger for essential workers doesn’t stop with their own lives. Two essential workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal recount infecting members of their families—one woman’s husband died after an outbreak in the grocery store where she works. Every day, 68-year-old Joyce Babineau lights a candle and talks to her husband’s ashes. “I talk to him and tell him I’m sorry,” she told the WSJ. “Because I brought it home.”

Now Babineau isn’t sure she can afford to retire this year, as she and her husband had planned, and she’s still showing up for her shifts at Stop & Shop. “As time goes on, everybody forgets that you’re still on the front line.” Safety measures at many workplaces have never been adequate—many have been almost entirely hygiene theater—and many companies eliminated their already inadequate hazard pay a few months into the pandemic, even as workers continued to get sick and die.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around the more than 440,000 COVID-19 deaths the United States has suffered. For workers who can’t stay home and are at the mercy of their employers’ highly variable commitments to health and safety measures, every day on the job brings the risk that they or a member of their family will be added to that toll. And we haven’t reckoned with that, either—congressional Republicans and some Democrats are still dragging their feet over the idea of taking the next four years to raise the minimum wage to $15. Paid leave is still not a reality in most of the United States, except in limited ways for limited time during the pandemic. The pandemic came, and the United States answered, in policy and politics, that essential workers are dispensable human beings. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.

The “Essential Worker” Swindle

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Politicians, pundits, CEOs and think tank staffers have spent the past 10months effusively praising the heroism and sacrifice of essential workers. ?“I’m not alone in being grateful for the work you are doing,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declared in a March 2020 open letter to the company’s workers who have labored throughout the pandemic, risking their lives to deliver hand sanitizer, face masks and baby formula (and increased Bezos’ personal fortune by 65%). Walmart has taken out television ads praising and thanking essential workers (even as it has imperiled and underpaid those under its employ). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D?Calif.) tweeted in July 2020, ?“Frontline and essential workers across the country have performed heroically since the start of the COVID-19pandemic.” Former President Trump, who oversaw 400,000 Covid deaths in the U.S. alone, ran a taped segment during the Republican National Convention in which he said to essential workers, ?“Thank you all very much. Great job.”

But beneath this praise is a troubling truth: Whatever mitigation of suffering and hardship has been achieved during the pandemic, it’s been built on the backs of an ?“essential” workforce that is hyper-exploited, under-paid, placed in extreme danger, and nowhere close to fairly compensated. The endless praise of these essential workers, from the very architects of their exploitation, only serves to justify and normalize a social order in which people who are disproportionately Black, Brown and low-wage are sacrificed. Instead of talking about how workers are being economically coerced into laboring under deadly conditions, we’re talking about heroism. Instead of criticizing policies and political decisions that send workers to their deaths, we are fawning at workers’ voluntary self-sacrifice. The ?“essential worker” discourse has the effect of enforcing discipline on a labor force that CEOs and politicians have decided is dispensable. This is not the language of gratitude?—?it’s the language of throwing people away.

A recent report on Chicago-area workers in the food industry shines new light on the conditions these ?“essential workers” face. In December, the workers’ rights organizations Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) interviewed 90 Chicago-area workers in food production, distribution and logistics (10% of those interviewed are white, 42% are Black and 48% are Latino). Eighty-five percent of the workers interviewed said that when employees raised Covid-19 safety concerns, bosses either failed to respond to complaints, retaliated against people who spoke out, or took actions that were not helpful. Sixty-one percent said they had to go without pay when they were ill or forced to undergo quarantine. Eighty-three percent of the workers who were infected with Covid-19report that ?“they did not receive paid sick leave from their employer or government assistance.” And a stunning 96% of workers interviewed said they were not receiving hazard pay. 

These workers are being asked to risk their lives every time they clock in to the job, but in return they are receiving no social support or meaningful compensation. One anonymous worker told the researchers, ?“I had the virus in April and had to quarantine for a month. Without insurance or quarantine pay, I had no choice but to stay home and suffer through it.” Another anonymous worker told researchers of a coworker who ?“got sick with Covid and passed away.” The person who died had been working while ill and, according to the interviewee, ?“The company never addressed the death or told us a coworker had died.”

The ?“essential workers” who are dying or going without pay so they can quarantine were already severely underpaid when the pandemic began, particularly those in the food industry. In 2019, the median wage for food and agricultural workers, for example, was just $13.12, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, just 8% of workers in this sector were represented by unions. Once the pandemic broke out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out health and safety ?“guidance” for essential workers. However, according to a research brief from The Shift Project, which collects and analyzes survey data, ?“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency ordinarily tasked with enforcing regulations to protect workers, has largely left safety standards and protocols up to individual employers.” (On Thursday, President Biden instructed OSHA to issue new guidelines to protect workers from Covid-19.)

Essential workers themselves have been some of the loudest critics of the effusive praise with which their exploitation has been met. ?“We are tired of taking the risk,” said San Jose, California McDonald’s worker Maria Ruiz, while on strike in April 2020for hazard pay of an additional $3 per hour. ?“I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she added in an interview with In These Times, ?“but I’m more afraid to lose my life.” A cashier at a New Seasons Market in Portland, Oregon told In These Times in March 2020, ?“I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Meanwhile, Koch-funded think tank staffers, Wall Street bankers and even Reagan-era economist Art Laffer have emerged as some of the biggest cheerleaders of sending workers into deadly conditions. ?“We need to get production back?—?period,” Laffer proclaimed just weeks into the U.S. pandemic (Trump gave Laffer the presidential medal of freedom in 2019).

Of course, there is a conversation to be had about the need to keep people fed and cared for during the pandemic, a feat that almost certainly requires some degree of sacrifice and hard work in the service of the common good. Food must still get to people’s homes, health workers must still care for the sick and dying, farms must keep growing produce so that people can live. And indeed, many workers are acting heroically, as illustrated when they’ve stood up again and again to defend their lives, and the lives of their coworkers, under harrowing conditions.

But 10 months into this crisis, U.S. society has not had a meaningful collective conversation about what a just, shared sacrifice could look like. We have not talked about how to evenly distribute the burden of danger, how to make sure that each human life is valued as we tackle the mammoth challenges before us. With no real public debate, we are operating under the assumption that if sacrifices must be made, it is the most exploited sectors of the working class that should make them?—?an attitude that prevails during ?“normal” times, but now with brutal efficiency. As Hamilton Nolan pointed out in March, we’re not asking Art Laffer to wait tables. We’re not asking politicians to send their children to work the checkout lines in grocery stores. The idea that those options would even be on the table is laughable. 

If we continue on the current trajectory, when this is all over, the pandemic is going to be the story of how, in the face of social crisis, an entire class of people was abused, discarded and left to die. All the while, we were told that the only way through the crisis was for the workers who have always been sacrificed for the profits of the few to make greater sacrifices than ever before. And as Black, Brown and poor people disproportionately perished from Covid-19, as Chicago-area food workers languished without sick pay, we were reassured not to be outraged. Because this is noble sacrifice, and essential workers are ?“heroes.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The InterceptThe Nation, and Tom Dispatch.


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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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How Americans Can Help the Frontline Workers Battling COVID-19

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Chad Longpre Shepersky repeatedly took COVID-19 tests—and waited on pins and needles for results each time—during a coronavirus outbreak at Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Longpre Shepersky, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), never contracted the virus. But he watched in agony as dozens of his patients and coworkers fell ill and fought for their lives.

As a weary nation enters the holiday season, Americans have an opportunity to help health care workers like Longpre Shepersky and start bringing the raging pandemic under control.

Consistently wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions will slow COVID-19’s spread and provide much-needed relief to the frontline workers battling burnout as well as the virus.

“Everyone should do their part,” insisted Longpre Shepersky, financial secretary and steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9349, which represents workers at Guardian Angels. “Just the other day, I witnessed people in Walmart not wearing masks or following 6-foot distancing. Too many people aren’t doing what they can to fight the virus.”

As infection rates soar to their highest levels nationwide, 10 months into the pandemic, it continues to take a disproportionately deadly toll on frail, vulnerable nursing home residents and the people who care for them.

So many residents and workers at Guardian Angels contracted the virus that the Minnesota National Guard sent a five-person medical team in October to help keep the 90-bed facility operating. Even then, as he worried about his own safety and mourned the deaths of several patients, Longpre Shepersky logged grueling amounts of overtime to fill in for ill colleagues.

“It got to the point where you dreaded going to work because you didn’t know what the day was going to bring,” recalled Longpre Shepersky, a CNA for 21 years who considers his coworkers and patients a second family. “But there was no one else there to do it. I just pulled up my big boy pants and went in to work and got through the day.”

Many nursing home workers endured staffing shortages at their facilities long before the pandemic. Because of low Medicaid payments for patient care, among other reasons, facilities paid low wages, skimped on staff or battled chronic turnover.

When COVID-19 struck, turnover and staff sicknesses compounded the chronic understaffing.

Now, nursing home workers struggle to stay physically and psychologically healthy while putting in extra shifts to ensure residents receive the highest quality care around-the-clock. Besides longer hours, many also took on additional responsibilities, such as serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from visitors during facility lockdowns.

These everyday heroes feel stretched to the breaking point. Many nursing home workers and other health care professionals report unprecedented levels of burnout and other mental health concerns as they worry not only about their own safety but the fate of their patients and the possibility of bringing the virus home to their own family members.

“I try to go in with a positive mindset,” explained Shirley Richardson, unit president for USW Local 7898, which represents workers at the 220-bed Veterans’ Victory House in Walterboro, South Carolina. “The main object is being safe. I try to stay focused. I don’t let little things get to me.”

“It’s going to get better,” she reminds coworkers who’ve endured about two dozen cases of COVID-19, including the deaths of several patients and a nurse, at their facility. “This can’t go on forever. We just have to work through it.”

The pandemic highlighted the essential work that nursing home staff members perform—and the necessity of treating them as essential workers from now on.

That will require fixing the nation’s health care system—even if that means allocating additional tax dollars—so that nursing homes receive adequate payment for their services. Then the facilities can hire and retain adequate numbers of workers—and provide hazard pay and paid sick leave to ensure staffing remains at high levels during emergencies.

“It’s just the staffing that’s been the worst part of this year,” explained Chris Sova, unit president for USW Local 15301-1, which represents nurses at Bay County Medical Care Facility in Essexville, Michigan.

“I feel like a zombie, almost. I honestly don’t know how we do it anymore,” marveled Sova, a third-generation nursing home worker, who described his routine some weeks as, “Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Wake up. Go to work.”

It infuriates Sova to know that while he and his coworkers put their lives on the line every day, some Americans refuse to take simple steps to slow the virus’ spread.

Across the country, some people fail to wear masks even as infection rates in their own communities skyrocket and strain the capacity of local hospitals.

So far, at least 259,000 Americans died of COVID-19, more than 65,000 of them in nursing homes. Universal mask-wearing, according to one new study, could prevent 130,000 more deaths in the U.S. in coming months.

“People wear seatbelts, but they have a big thing about face masks?” Sova fumed.

Longpre Shepersky faces the upcoming holidays with trepidation, realizing that the family gatherings and parties Americans long for so earnestly this year also present additional opportunities for spreading the virus.

The residents at Guardian Angels wear masks whenever they leave their rooms, and because of the risk of another outbreak, they also could face limits on visitors this holiday season.

If they can make sacrifices to help contain the virus, other Americans can as well.

“Everyone definitely has to take this seriously,” Longpre Shepersky said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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