Workers Fight for Their Lives

The spontaneous rebellion of low-wage workers exposed to Covid-19.

Michelle Chen May 21, 2020

Shiela Mercado’s protest sign, “We Are Sacrificial,” mocks the treatment she and other nurses have received during the pandemic. Nurses represented by the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United rallied throughout California on April 17 to demand personal protective equipment for those assigned Covid-19 patients. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

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.

“[People say] we’re heroes and everything—but it doesn’t feel like we’re heroes. It feels like we don’t have a choice.”

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 36 mil­lion oth­ers can­not work at all, laid off from their jobs since mid-March 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 12.7 mil­lion laid-off work­ers lost their employ­er-spon­sored health plans between ear­ly March and the end of 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 strike in 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.”

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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