“Very, very few steps were taken to protect anybody”: Essential Service Workers’ Fight for Their Lives

This is Part II. Part I can be read here.

Labor Law Fact Sheet

By Teresa Rodriguez

“Clean your hands often.” “Maintain a safe distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.” “Stay home if you feel unwell.” For many service workers in Philadelphia, these recommendations from the World Health Organization are impossible to follow. How often can you wash your hands with soap and water when you’re standing at a register for hours on end? How can you maintain social distancing if you’re having innumerable face-to-face interactions, handling customers’ items and money, and stocking and cleaning alongside throngs of shoppers? How can you avoid coming in sick when paid sick days are commonly withheld from you and you can’t afford to miss a paycheck? How can a laid-off service worker be expected to stay home when they lose their income overnight after years of living paycheck to paycheck? The answer is: they can’t. Service workers are rarely paid a living wage and lack the financial luxury of hunkering down with the rest of the country. They have no choice but to heed the call of the essential worker, even if it means risking their lives.

This grim reality is reflected in the results of a “How is Coronavirus Affecting Your Job?” survey organized by Philly Workers for Dignity, the labor organizing project of Philly Socialists. The following percentages focus specifically on service workers who responded:

91% reported feeling concerned about their ability to pay rent or other bills due to COVID.

47% reported going to work sick during the outbreak.

39% received NO coronavirus-related guidance from employers.

Life for a Livelihood?

At time of writing, Pennsylvania has the 6th most confirmed cases (at 71,102) and the 5th most deaths (at 5,107) due to COVID-19 in the nation. Despite this, scores of grocery store workers, big box retail workers, food service workers, and delivery workers remain in the line of fire. They work in direct contact with the public while their employers make little to no provisions to protect them from exposure or provide compensation equal to the dangers involved. People who depend on low-wage jobs for survival suddenly find themselves unwitting “heroes”, soldiers who never signed up to join any army. And in this compulsory service to the profit of business owners, many have paid the ultimate sacrifice:

At least 41 grocery workers have died of COVID-19 (as of April 12th).

Thousands of grocery workers have tested positive.

At least 2,000 confirmed cases and 20 deaths reported in Walmart stores (as of April 30th).

332 confirmed cases and 4 deaths reported in 156 Whole Foods stores at time of writing.

15 cases in Pennsylvania.

3 cases in Philadelphia.

This is profoundly disturbing, not the least for the fact that it didn’t have to happen this way. Employers could have provided PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), paid leave, and other protections as soon as a danger presented itself. They could have limited business activity to the sale and manufacture of essential goods. They could have closed any stores with positive cases. But by and large, they didn’t. Most did not implement anything until forced to by state or local law, and even now only begrudgingly provide the bare minimum. Governments, for their part, focus on devising ways to get more workers working instead of prioritizing ways to keep them out of harm’s way. This is caused by abject negligence and a warped societal structure that regards low-wage workers as disposable.

A Rude Awakening

Service workers are used to being treated like they are worthless. For many, their unchanging position under newly perilous circumstances is disappointing, but unsurprising. 

Service labor, no matter the kind, is seen as necessary in a world where mass fast-consumerism has become a given. And global pandemic notwithstanding, service workers are never excused from performing their “duty”. Customers must continue to get their steady stream of goods, be they frivolous or no. And, like always, these must be served cordially despite any abuse, degradation, or threat to one’s person that workers may receive. 

But this most recent installment of alarming neglect is different. It has readable metrics. Rather than the impact of routine abusive practices staying buried in personal anecdotes, individual complaints placed on file with a governing body, or discussions of poverty that don’t address the cause, these unique circumstances provide a sense of how many have “fallen” thanks to this continuing neglect. Such extraordinary clarity is useful for ending the slow-burn destruction of lives that has been happening all along. Such collective trauma holds the potential to dislodge acquiescence.

This observation has not escaped many service workers and people on the left alike, who are recognizing this as a historic state of affairs that must be seized for all it can yield. When the relentless race of capitalist life suddenly halts to the point that only certain “essential” people are left carrying the torch, the value of service workers both as contributors to society and as human beings inevitably bubbles to the surface. The smoke and mirrors are gone, and what’s truly important, what’s desperately needed, begins to clearly be seen.

Philly Testimony

Dylan Burch worked at a Philadelphia location of Target until mid-April, when she quit due to the store’s shoddy coronavirus response. Dylan characterizes the response as “abysmal”. She says that the company was slow to implement any protective policies and failed to provide masks, gloves, or hand sanitizer for the entire time she worked there. The only measures implemented immediately following the shutdown were closing public restrooms (for theft prevention reasons) and water fountains in the store. Dylan says that this actually made things harder for staff, who were left with only one restroom and no access to drinking water. Said employee bathroom would often be out of soap. Dylan says that around 40 people were on staff at any one time at her store. 

A little later, the amount of customers allowed in the store was limited, returns and exchanges were halted, hazard pay of $2 an hour was provided, and staff were directed to wipe shopping carts down. Dylan emphasizes that most of these policies were put in place only because the company had no choice but to comply with state mandate: “very, very few steps [were] taken to actually protect anybody”. Besides that, the elephant in the room remained largely unaddressed, even in store meetings, where management would instead “talk about how great it is that sales are up right now”. Dylan says staff were ordered to keep 6-feet apart from one another and reprimanded otherwise, but asserts that this was impossible to achieve in cramped staff areas. 

“I’ve had plenty of bad managers before, but not when people’s lives are at risk—that’s a different story,” Dylan says of her decision to leave. She makes sure to add that “I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could quit and be okay but a lot of people aren’t in that and I really feel for them”.

This behavior is typical for Target, as Dylan attests. “They’re the 6th or 7th largest retailer in America, they can do whatever they want,” she explains. She says that all employees were kept under 40 hours a week and that the number of hours employees got varied greatly from week to week. Dylan acknowledges that most businesses do not care about their employees, but attributes some of the neglect she experienced at Target to the fact that there is no union. “But,” Dylan is quick to add, “Target, Walmart, any of those big box stores… you’re not even supposed to talk about that”. “When you’re just some schmo working at Target… you can’t really do a whole lot by yourself”, she says, adding that even when she would voice her displeasure nothing would ever come of it. She says that she could see the Target workforce unionizing, but only through “an entire network of people across the country” who would, she imagines, organize through social media. “We need people to do these jobs…The best we can do is just try to improve them for the people that are brave enough to do them.”

The Situation

Our window into the current conditions of essential service workers nationally is, for the most part, limited to widely-publicized reports of the response (or lack thereof) of big-name corporate giants. Nevertheless, this gives a good sense of what is going on. Most economic activity under lockdown is undoubtedly centered on big business—and their policies and procedures tend to guide that of the industry overall. 

Across the board, we see a lack of PPE, denied sick leave, a failure to enforce social distancing, a reluctance to provide hazard pay, and a lack of health coverage.

In many cases, it is very difficult to attain leave, and workers may not be notified of its existence. Paid time off is often offered only to those with official diagnosis, which prevents those who are sick without definitive test results from staying home. Instacart workers can’t access COVID-19 sick leave at all because the company doesn’t accept doctor’s notes. Shipt (a delivery service owned by Target) requires letters from public health officials in order to get paid leave. Some workplaces offer a bonus for NOT calling in sick. Ill employees who manage to stay home are being pressured to come back to work or agree to a definite return date. In Philly, Trader Joe’s employees had to start a GoFundMe to make it possible for workers to stay home when sick or immunocompromised (the link can be found in the “Resources” section below).

At Target, neither workers nor guests were required to wear masks before government mandates went into effect. Many stores even forbade workers from wearing masks, for fear it would “scare customers”. Similarly, Walmart refuses to let workers bring their own PPE. Conversely, other workers must depend entirely on gloves and masks they bring from home in the absence of their employers providing them.

Workers are not adequately trained to deal with the unique challenges at hand in this crisis. Instacart and other grocery delivery workers are dealing with 65% more demand, demand for groceries in general has doubled, and all are experiencing longer shifts and heavier workloads. Time to wash hands is scarce. Cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer run out before new shipments arrive. There is high foot traffic, and in many cases the max capacity for customers in a store is not adjusted substantially below normal levels. In stores like Target, which has the distinction of operating despite also being a retail establishment offering a myriad of nonessential goods, customers are clogging the aisles for purely recreational shopping. Workers have no defense against customers who disregard social distancing and other safety measures.

Those who become infected with the virus in these unsafe conditions become sources of the disease themselves, likely causing further community spread via the general public they interact with. Stores are kept open even when an employee contracts COVID. The public is only spottily notified of these cases, if at all. Once cases in an Amazon warehouse reach a certain amount, the company stops releasing a count and just refers to “additional cases”. Walmart doesn’t even tell employees about potential and confirmed COVID cases. Workers who get sick are forbidden from sharing this fact on social media. (Some workers have turned to keeping their own running tallies of cases/deaths to inform the public; the link to the Whole Foods one can be found above.)

Meanwhile, as some workers put pressure on businesses to provide protections, Whole Foods and Amazon have created a “heat map” to track workplace organizing. Many benefits that were reluctantly given are now going to be rescinded under the pretense that the threat has ceased (Amazon, for example, abolished hazard pay in June).

Desperate Times

The rushed reopening means that many laid-off service workers will join essential workers in these dire circumstances. They will immediately be thrown back into the same parameters they were previously subject to (these are described in the previous article). Rather than offering protection or enforcing its own law (see the accompanying Labor Law Fact Sheet for relevant law info), the state’s advice is to simply not go to work if work is unsafe. Obviously, doing this without also getting fired is impossible without a group of organized workers doing so collectively. Other than a number of grocery stores, most service workplaces are not unionized.

The United Food And Commercial Workers International Union is urging states to categorize grocery workers as first responders and give higher priority for testing and PPE. UFCW 1776, a local chapter of the above, represents grocery store and food manufacturers in PA, including 12,000 in the greater Philadelphia region. A “COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act”, which aims to ensure enforcement of protective laws and guidance by requiring the CDC to investigate and report work-related COVID infections and requiring OSHA to issue an emergency temporary occupational safety or health standard and a permanent infectious disease standard, has been introduced in Congress. (OSHA has the authority to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard if employees are exposed to grave danger from new hazards, but it has not done so yet.) However, an unprecedented amount of worker-led labor actions, both spontaneous and planned, prove that non-unionized workers (roughly 89% of the US workforce) can’t afford to wait.  

Taking Action

Many service workers at “essential” businesses are suddenly organizing. Most of these are rank-and-file (ordinary employees rather than managers or union leaders) workers organizing over social media, with some being supported by independent radical labor organizations (Philly Workers for Dignity is a local example of such an organization). Many of these are gig workers.

Employees of Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, FedEx, Instacart, and others have been initiating multiple waves of strikes since the onset of the pandemic. A coordinated effort emerged for May Day (May 1st), with workers from these businesses pledging to walk off the job or call out sick. Organizers called on consumers to boycott the companies. An Amazon protest in New York drove the point home by displaying body bags. At least one other Amazon warehouse protested. There was a car protest held outside of a Target. Workers announced sets of nearly identical demands including hazard pay, sick leave, protective gear and cleaning supplies. As early as March, 50 Amazon workers at a warehouse in NY walked off the job when the company decided to keep their facility open despite an employee contracting COVID. There have also been dozens of fast-food employee walkouts. A four-day strike of McDonald’s workers in California was successful in attaining separators and PPE.

And national chains aren’t the only ones seeing resistance. Locally, a number of employees of MOM’s Organic Market in Center City held a car protest as they delivered a set of demands to management (demands included limiting customer capacity, closing early, and allowing a designated period to clean). Riverwards Produce employees organized, forming the Riverwards Employee Coalition, and sent a petition to the owner asking for hazard pay. Instead of receiving a response to their petition, most of those who signed it were fired. (Riverwards has since received a $40,000 no-interest loan from the city.) Both efforts were met with firings (one of the MOM’s protest organizers was previously fired for complaining about conditions), yet persist. Following the protest, MOM’s organizers executed a social media, email, and phone blast of the company’s senior leadership. The Riverwards Employee Coalition attracted media attention and overwhelming community support (their GoFundMe is linked below). More recently, Milk & Honey Market workers organized for safer working conditions and a pay increase. After the owners responded by posting hiring signs, workers walked out and protested, posting signs of their own on the outside of the building proclaiming that they had formed a union. This action successfully compelled the owners to temporarily cease operations and agree to hold a meeting with employees.

Similar actions have been taken by transit workers, factory workers, tradespeople, and teachers. Nurses and other healthcare professionals have begun joining service worker protests, pointing out that businesses and their COVID practices have a significant role to play in whether conditions worsen in hospitals. Established unions are also voicing support for these actions.

The call for a general strike, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the US since WWII, is growing stronger. The recent May Day strikes were a first attempted iteration of this. The general strike website says that organizers in the industry working in concert with one another are also planning major actions on the first day of every month indefinitely until demands are met. The goal is a campaign of “rolling strikes” to keep pressure on business owners. They offer several different ways to participate, including signal boosting on social media, boycotting, donating, and conducting slowdowns and sickouts in the workplace.

Radical Renaissance

Although few of these actions completely shut down the operations of these businesses, we are witnessing a workforce go from fear and submission to bold self advocacy overnight. And, thanks in part to extensive sharing of these efforts on the internet, they have garnered extensive media coverage and significant public support.

Besides being historic in scale and frequency, these movements are encouraging indicators of a burgeoning alternative labor movement where workers in the post-union age find empowerment in each other and improve conditions through organic grassroots organizing. While this shift has been underway for a while, the pandemic has accelerated its development and unveiled its potential. What’s more, these groups are not bound by the limits of traditional unions, and can therefore collaborate with each other directly for industry-wide gains (unions are prohibited from performing “sympathy strikes” to put pressure on another employer). They are also free to employ more disruptive strategies than their formal counterparts (who are expected to perform structured negotiation). This shift becomes especially necessary at the present moment, when the National Labor Relations Board has suspended union elections during the pandemic. Ironically, the new movement (one formed in the void left by decades of union busting) is not affected by this. For 89% of workers, the possibilities remain endless.

Reopening

These models become more urgently relevant by the minute. As we face a rushed reopening, it could be said that protecting our lives (and even the lives of the general public) hinges on how easily we cooperate with orders to return to work from the government/business machine. Instead of begging for the crumbs we were tossed before, we can demand that we are treated humanely. Doing so would prevent innumerable worker and consumer deaths caused by a premature reopening of service businesses, which by definition center on high volumes of close human interaction. In other words, we can stand our ground and send a message that we will no longer accept being thrown to the lions in the service of producing profit for our exploiters. Those laid off can demand the financial help needed to stay home until it is safe to return to work. Those providing essential goods can demand the initiation or continuation of sweeping protections and compensation equal to the risk they are taking on. And together, we can refuse to be sacrificed.

Looking Forward

Temporary improvements to conditions won under this crisis such as better wages and sick leave will not easily be given up again. We do not have to accept returning to “normal” conditions. With efforts like Philly Workers for Dignity’s Unemployed Council being implemented, with workers fighting together to win protections under extreme adversity, and with all workers soon to reconvene, we stand poised to fight for permanent change. We have more leverage than ever, and more reason than ever before to use it.


RESOURCES TO JOIN IN THE FIGHT

(or learn more!):


Teresa Rodriguez can be reached at trodriguez@mica.edu.

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