If our essential workers are so important, why aren’t we properly protecting them?
No one can forget that we’re in a middle of a global pandemic. Despite the lack of cohesive federal policy, and the fact that our leaders flip flop on whether businesses and schools should open or close, we should wear masks or not, most rational, sane, and financially solvent people stay home as much as possible, and order online even basic things such as groceries. But there is also a large group of people, our “essential” workers who don’t have the luxury or choice to stay at home. These are the folks in the trenches, the first responders, the people filling our orders, delivering our mail, taking care of us at hospitals and clinics, driving our buses, and harvesting our food. These people are essential because what they do allow the rest of us to stay at home to weather the storm.
The COVID-19 has exposed the deeply rooted class divisions, racial injustice, and economic inequality that are part of the fabric of our society. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the lucky ones. You are a desk jockey. You can perform your job from the comfort of your home, via computer and a good internet connection.
And, I’m not minimizing the strain and discomfort that the effects of COVID-19 have imposed on all of us. If you’re part of the lucky group and have children, you’ve been essentially home-schooling them since March while also trying to work and keep your job. Stressful and fatiguing are understatements. However, our “essential” workers have it worse. If you’re working on a job where the possibilities for social distancing are next to impossible and where you’re less than one-paycheck away from being evicted, then your stress levels are exponential and almost untenable.
Public and private organizations are responding to this inequality in ways that are yet to be seen effective. The message seems to be that we should all do our part and help our essential workers. We are urged to give delivery drivers bigger tips, hang signs on our front doors honoring their work, and support gofundme’s for businesses that have laid off or furloughed their workers. We even have a catchy theme song, “Good Job,” a veritable upbeat pat on the back, written and performed by New York City based musician Alicia Keys, who narrates how much we depend on and appreciate these people. Although these efforts demonstrate our collective good will and they are better than doing nothing, it’s really only a drop in the bucket of financial and emotional support that essential workers need to make it through this pandemic without getting sick or getting evicted.
What do we need? We need a lot and pronto. Thus far, we see some efforts, but it’s too early to determine how effective they will be in the long term. For instance, some businesses and organizations have reconfigured their physical work places to encourage social distancing by establishing barriers that separate workers or workers from customers. Many supermarkets now limit the number of people who can enter at any given time, require customers to wear a mask, and are constantly disinfecting surfaces and carts. These things are helpful and may prove really important in keeping our essential workers safe and the economy running. But, there are many of us who for some twisted logic insist in not adhering to these simple health-mandated rules.
The theme of “we can open but safely” seems to be the chant of many corporations and educational institutions, and politicians. They point to countries such as China, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, who have managed to rearrange their work sites, retail businesses, and schools to permit some measure of normalcy. But it is wrong to compare our strategy (or lack thereof) to these countries. These countries, unlike the United States, had a coordinated effort and very early in the game strictly imposed lock-downs, had massive testing, quarantined those infected, and had serious contact tracing. Unlike the countries that have flattened the curve we have no national policy and thus are subject to one of the highest rates of infection and deaths in the world.
That’s why many so many Americans are skittish about returning to work. Why? When you leave your home, there are large swaths of people who don’t wear face masks and don’t social distance. You increase your risk of contracting Corona virus when you come into contact with them, whether they care or not.
So I ask you these questions. Does your boss really care if you get sick or you die because of COVID-19? If he or she kind of likes you, then the answer will be “Maybe.” Does the owner or the shareholder of the corporation you work for care? Probably not. And don’t let those television advertising spots from corporations with the messages of “we are all in this together” and we’ve donated $2 million to organizations to help people in need fool you. (These amounts are simply drops in the bucket, anyways compared to what they paid in advertising to get their messages out). Any sideways glance at the unemployment numbers and you are going to quickly conclude that you are replaceable. Nowhere was this recently put in to bold relief when selected owners of large meat, pork and poultry processing plants in states like Georgia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota told their workers “You’re feeding America.” This appeal to patriotism was thinly veiled consolation for people who were dropping by the buckets from COVID-19.
What does this mean? Do you really want to be a martyr for capitalism? Probably not.
In the meantime as a socio-economic system that now pretends to care about essential workers, but generally fails to improve their working conditions and pay them a decent wage, we will muddle along, more people will contract the COVID-19 virus and a large percentage of them will die. This will place their loved ones in greater financial and emotional distress.
True societal change will only occur only when the political system recognizes and embraces as its primary mission not to let others less fortunate than us slip through the cracks and not see this as the role of charities, philanthropists, and religious organizations.