We Now Know Who Society’s Essential Workers Are. And They’re Among The Lowest Paid.

The coronavirus pandemic is putting grocery store and restaurant workers at risk, often with no health protections and just a handful of safety precautions in place.

Nation by nation, state by state, officials are urging us all to stay home. After watching the coronavirus crisis unfold in China, Italy and Spain, shelter-in-place ordinances are being issued from New York to California to Washington state, in Quebec and Ontario, as well as across all of Britain and India. Often only the most essential services and movements are allowed.

This includes not just medical services but also jobs often considered low-skilled or low-status: grocery store clerks, trash and recycling collectors, domestic workers, child care providers, delivery services, warehouse and distribution center workers, and postal employees.

The pandemic is laying bare just how vital these workers are to keeping our everyday lives running smoothly ― and they’re among the country’s lowest paid, often with few benefits. Food workers, who make up 14% of the U.S. workforce, typically make under $12 an hour, less than half the average hourly wage of more than $28 across all industries. The annual income for someone working in elder home care is about $16,000.

“For us caregivers, it’s a mortal sin to get sick,” Lee Plaza, a California home care worker, said on a press call Wednesday arranged by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Plaza works 12-hour shifts caring for a 98-year-old woman, and back home she has an 85-year-old mother and children to support. “If I get sick, I don’t know how to pay my bills. But you have to remain strong.”

In recent days, there’s been a steady drumbeat of long-overdue recognition of the often-thankless tasks performed by these workers.

“They were never ‘unskilled workers,’” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Sunday. “They were always essential.”

The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, which covers the capital region of New York, published an editorial urging people to be kind and thank essential workers, saying that “we need these individuals more than ever.”

“I’ve been promoted from hummus stocker to frontline aid worker,” grocery store employee Karleigh Frisbie Brogan wrote for HuffPost. “I’m being thanked for my service, my bravery even.”

The sentiment is stirring, and the country could use more of it as we descend deeper into this new normal. But it belies a system that fails to adequately compensate or protect the people we rely on so heavily.

“If I were to get sick, it would be like giving my family a death sentence.”

- Ezzie Dominquez, a house cleaner in Denver

Right now, many essential workers are seeing unprecedented demand for their jobs. While restaurants, cafes, airlines and car manufacturers are laying off employees, places like Amazon and Walmart are hiring 100,000 and 150,000 more workers, respectively.

But day after day, these workers find themselves on the frontline of a public health emergency, often with no health protections and just a handful of inadequate safety precautions in place.

“When everything [first] broke out I was cleaning houses left and right, everyone panicked, everyone was scared,” Ezzie Dominquez, a house cleaner in Denver, said on the press call. “But they were not saying we’re going to pay you more .... I actually felt like we were being exploited.”

She’s in remission from cancer and very worried about getting sick, but Dominguez feels she has no choice but to keep working. “Rent, bills, payments, they’re still waiting when I get home,” she says. Dominguez is the only breadwinner in her home since her husband was laid off, and she’s the only one with health insurance coverage for her children. “If I were to get sick, it would be like giving my family a death sentence.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of all workers in the U.S. don’t have paid sick leave. And those without this benefit are disproportionately the workers who interact the most with people, like those in the food industry, in health care and social assistance, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The analysis also found that the Families First Coronavirus Emergency Response Act passed by the Senate on March 18 won’t help those who need it the most because of a variety of factors, including waivers for small businesses and companies with more than 500 employees.

These workers are quickly becoming overworked and exhausted. And their jobs are more dangerous than ever. Once routine practices ― like standing side-by-side on the assembly line ― now bring heightened exposure to the virus.

Cashiers interact with customers at a distance less than the recommended 6 feet. Delivery and postal workers frequently come face to face with us when we open our doors to receive packages. And for those who get sick and stay home, our germs can spread to our trash and expose collectors. In Pittsburgh, for instance, trash collectors are reportedly striking, arguing they aren’t being supported and deserve hazard pay.

Some states and companies have taken steps to help support these essential workers.

Several supermarket chains, including Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Target, Whole Foods and the Texas-based chain H-E-B, have increased hourly wages by $2 ― but only temporarily. United Natural Food, one of the nation’s largest distributors to grocery stores (its warehouse workers typically earn $14 to $28 an hour), is also implementing a $2 per hour “state of emergency bonus” until the end of the month.

JPMorgan announced it was giving its “front-line employees,” such as bank tellers, a one-time bonus of up to $1,000. And Amazon said it will be doubling hourly wages for those working overtime in its warehouses through May 9. Workers, however, have complained that the online retailer is failing to fully implement safety procedures.

Meanwhile, Minnesota and Vermont led the way in designating grocery store workers essential in order for them to qualify for child care assistance.

Under the Families First Coronavirus Emergency Response Act, some essential workers will be eligible for free COVID-19 testing along with food assistance and unemployment insurance.

But Julie Kashen, senior policy adviser at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, warned, “many who are in informal arrangements, work irregular hours, work for multiple employers, who are misclassified as independent contractors will be excluded.”

While the Senate’s recently agreed-upon $2 trillion stimulus package was broadened to include freelancers, furloughed employees and gig workers, such as Uber drivers, there are still some gaps, experts say.

What’s more, those who don’t have social security numbers ― such as some immigrant and undocumented workers ― and instead use a taxpayer identification number (TIN) to file their taxes, also risk falling through the cracks. “It is our understanding that people who pay via TIN are not included in the package,” said Kashen of the Senate’s relief provisions. “That is a huge problem.”

Postal workers have continued to deliver mail and packages throughout the pandemic.
Postal workers have continued to deliver mail and packages throughout the pandemic.

Everything from immediately waiving evictions and rent to providing safety information in multiple languages and access to free testing and medical care ― especially for those uninsured ― is needed now, Kashen said.

But that’s not enough. Better wages and benefits are needed in the long-term, advocates argue, to truly reflect the value of this work.

As Sarah Jones at New York magazine wrote, “The outbreak of the novel coronavirus should debunk at last the idea that low-wage labor is less essential than other kinds of work.”

“The categories of essential versus nonessential — or skilled versus unskilled labor — were never as clear as their common usage implied,” she added. “As the pandemic rearranges American life, possibly for good, it should also force a reckoning. The way we think about labor and work has to change.”

“It’s WAY past time they got the respect they deserve w/ a living wage, paid sick leave, guaranteed healthcare, hazard pay, & more,” said Ocasio-Cortez in her tweet.

In addition to deserving free health care and paid sick leave because of their risk of exposure to coronavirus, all food workers should also be entitled to a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour “and have equal legal rights and labor protections,” argued an editorial published by CivilEats. “If we do the right thing in this time of emergency, we will recognize that our debt to food workers does not end when this pandemic does; they deserve dignity, fair wages, and a safe workplace at all times.”

“If we had [paid sick days and universal family care] in place before this started, we’d be in much better shape,” Kashen said.

“We’re not invisible,” Dominguez said. “We should have equal rights and benefits, too... we are not disposable, we deserve the same protections as every other worker.”

HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com.

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