Being Essential: A Life and Death Struggle

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Judy and Nora became firm friends in a shared hospital room after the birth of their daughters. Strangers when they met, they were both immigrants from the Caribbean, country girls excited to be living in the vibrant city of Brooklyn. They had much in common. They shared a love of their culture — its music and festivals – and regaled each other with hilarious tales of their amorous adventures. As single mothers eager to make a good life for themselves and their newborn infants, they decided to join forces, and so made plans to start a house cleaning business together.

They soon collected a steady group of appreciative clients who saw messy interiors cheerfully turned spic and span, disorder enthusiastically tidied away. Dependability and doing a good job were Judy and Nora’s way. Yet, several years later, no matter how hard they worked, they found they couldn’t make a decent living. Nora gave up — and, further, discouraged by the racism of daily life in the U.S., she went back to the Caribbean.

On her own now and with another child, a boy, to support, Judy completed a training course for home health aides, an occupation she hoped would give her financial stability. But the home care agency that hired her did not offer her full-time employment or even regular work, nor could she expect healthcare benefits or vacation pay. So to make ends meet she needed to keep some of her cleaning clients. Somehow, despite her precarious work situationshe managed to keep food on the table and pay her rent, and in the spring of 2020, her baby daughter graduated from college and her son was about to finish high school. Judy still made her costumes for the annual West Indian carnival, still danced all night, still made plans for a brighter future.

But then, in February 2020, the coronavirus had begun to sweep through the nation, and the World Health Organization declared the disease a pandemic.  By the end of March, the city went on lockdown and Judy lost her cleaning clients. She lived in one of the Black and Latinx working-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where mortality rates from COVID-19 were twice that of white residents in the more affluent Manhattanso she too heeded Governor Cuomo’s call ”to stay at home.” More than 40 million workers were laid off nationwide—an astonishing 25 percent of the workforce—and were filing for unemployment benefits. Judy planned to join them. After all, for decades she had dutifully paid her taxes.

Meanwhile, deaths and hospitalizations were rising, and sectors of the workforce were being labeled “essential.” Among them were workers like Judy who, it was acknowledged, keep society running. They nurse our sick, produce our food, take care of our elderly, deliver our packages and mail, and move us around. But Judy discovered that she was also classified as a “gig worker,” which, at the time, prevented her from claiming benefits designated for workers who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

Personal-care aides—for the most part female, Black, Latinx, and documented and undocumented immigrants—whose jobs often involve bathing and feeding elderly patients with high fatality rates were themselves dying in high numbers. Agency bosses, intent on maintaining their profits, responded by searching for others to replace their shrinking workforce. Judy began to get calls from the home care agency offering her more day’s work, but with no provision for her safety, although home health care is one of the most profitable franchises in the U.S. (Company CEOs make an average of $456,533 a year; the average hourly wage for home health aides in New York City is $11.81.)

She faced an impossible choice: Should she risk infection in a work environment that offers neither protective gear for its workers nor testing for COVID-19–and on the overcrowded buses and subways that would take her there? Or should she remain at home, “sheltering in place,“ a move that could perhaps doom her to a life of poverty?

“I don’t want to die for a job,” she said as she searched for a way out. “Life matters more than money.”

Other “essential” workers began protesting unsafe working conditions. At the end of April, meatpackers at a Tyson Foods facility in Ohio walked off their jobs. Their demandsdeep cleaning of the facilities, safe spacing between workers on the line, personal protective equipment, and periodic health checkswere ignored by Tyson’s CEO, whose total compensation in 2019 was $10.398 million, compared with the paltry $11.34 he paid his workers for an hour of their labor.

In a move ostensibly to protect the nation’s food supply chain, President Donald Trump issued an executive order, under the Defense Production Act, that required meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic. His primary concern was the possible negative effect on the markets and stock exchange if Tyson—the biggest provider of meat products in the U.S., with $40 billion in revenue—stopped production; he did not order the owners to make their slaughterhouses safe for those who work there, however.

The meatpackers then learned that those who refuse to return to work out of fear of contracting COVID-19 risk losing their eligibility for unemployment benefits. Tyson workers—again predominantly Black, Latinx, and immigrant, with no other means to support their families—were forced to return to a dangerous facility.

Judy also had no choice. She took the work the home care agency offered, four days a week, caring for one elderly client. Carefully stretching a shrunken paychecknever enough to surviveshe buys her own protective gear and is as meticulous at protecting herself, her family, and her client as she was at cleaning homes.

Then, on May 25, the video-recorded death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in a police chokehold sent thousands of people to the streets in protest. And in a remarkable convergence of struggles, the pent-up rage from decades of police violence and racial profiling merged with the anger of workers losing jobs and livelihood, and under the banner of Black Lives Mattera movement demanding an end to economic and racist inequities quickly spread from coast to coast.

Placards declaring “Black lives matter” took over public spaceson walls, in shop windows, across urban landscapes and suburban lawns. The message is painted in giantbright yellow letters on the road leading to the White House, on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Towers in New York City, and on Greenwood Avenue (the ill-fated “Black Wall Street” of an earlier era) in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A Pew Research Center survey in June found that a majority of Americans now believe that systemic racism is a major problem in this country. For African-Americans, it’s a problem as old as the nation itself that began when early plantation owners, keen to maximize profits and fearful of joint rebellions of their African and European workersdivided their workforce according to a systemenforced by laws and violenceof paid labor for whites and enslavement for Blacks.

For 200 years the labor of enslaved people produced super-profits for the plantation oligarchy and propelled a colonial, agricultural society into the thriving capitalist state of today. Slavery ended but racist practices have remained: a powerful few perpetuate racial inequalities to maximize their profits, and Blacks and Latinx are disproportionately employed in low-paid jobs.

Seven months since the pandemic began, the COVID-19 virus is taking more lives, overburdening the healthcare system, and profoundly altering life as we once knew it. More people are losing their jobs as more and more businesses close. Food lines get longer and landlords begin to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent.

State subsidies for the unemployed in this time of crisis have run out. House Democrats and Senate Republicans cannot reach an agreement on the next relief package that will extend weekly unemployment payments and further halt evictions. Tens of millions of Americans are at risk of losing their homes in January 2021 when an extended moratorium on evictions runs out.

“How do they expect us to survive?” asks Judy. For now, she concentrates on keeping her family fed and healthy.

Essential workers, like Judy, who help us all survive, are trapped in a social and economic system where they work fulltime yet live in poverty, and where, in our current pandemic, as in all times of crisis, race and class determine who lives and who dies.

The movement inspired by George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police continues to grow.  Polls show that as of early July, 15 to 26 million people nationwide said they had protested, a turnout unmatched by any other movement in U.S. history. On September 1, 150,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the “Get Off Our Necks” Commitment March that commemorated the fifty-seventh anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Protests continue. They are smaller, and still about defunding the police and reinvesting resources in social programs but now are also about an end to systemic racism and the need for social, economic, and political change.

Outside a New York City hospital, demonstrators carry posters that read “We Are All Essentials.”

A masked nurse holds up a sign:  “Capitalism KillsWorkers Rise Up.”

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