U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds paid tribute to essential workers with a joint flyover above New York City on April 28, and New Yorkers showed their gratitude by shouting out from their windows in the evening. In Detroit, Biggby Coffee partnered with Sam Bernstein law firm, a.k.a. “Michigan’s First Family of Law,” to give away free coffee to health care workers in mid-April. Starbucks followed suit in offering free coffee to frontline workers across the U.S. Throughout the country, people organized driving rallies and marches to thank people who are working on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many of us think that the term “essential workers” describes medical staff, teachers, police officers, and firefighters, the term covers a wide range of employees who never stopped working during the COVID-19 total shelter-in-place weeks and beyond. These employees are so essential that our lives were to be paralyzed if they, too, sheltered in. The category of essential workers includes the aforementioned groups, as well as grocery store staff, nursing and senior living facilities workers, our children’s daycare staff, delivery workers, restaurant staff, and cleaning staff, to name a few. And most essential workers do not make a living wage.
Now that our children are staying home, we appreciate more and more the role teachers play and realize that they are indeed essential. I, like some parents, am now thinking, “How do teachers handle 20 kids like mine?” All of a sudden we realize that the cashier, the guy stocking the shelves, the security guy at grocery store, are indeed essential. It was not the banker, the lawyer, or the real estate agent who saved us. It was low-paid, unseen workers who made our lives possible during the times of total social isolation.
This fact left me wondering why it took a global pandemic to realize that these workers are indeed essential. How much do we value them, despite them performing activities that make our daily lives possible?
Though Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population, 17% of all front-line-industry workers are Black, and 59% of all Black essential workers are women.
Most of these jobs do not provide benefits or health insurance.
Apart from the medical field, we have limited data on essential workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or, unfortunately, passed away from the disease. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation 2019 issue brief, people of color make up 43% of the people younger than 65 in the U.S. but make up more than half of the total non-elderly uninsured population. About 19% of Latinx people and 11% of Blacks younger than 65 had no insurance. Seventy percent of U.S. workers with no health insurance worked for an employer that did not offer them health benefits, 24% of U.S. workers do not get paid sick leave, and 29% are underinsured. As a result, many essential workers are likely to develop underlying conditions.
Based on limited data, COVID-19 will affect people living with HIV with an undetectable viral load like any other person in the general population. On the other hand, people living with HIV whose viral load is high remain vulnerable to COVID-19 and could progress to critical condition.
Results from a small-scale study conducted in Florida showed a direct link between HIV treatment adherence and socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status, race, and gender play a role in enabling people living with HIV to reach and maintain an HIV undetectable status. Socioeconomic barriers make it hard for Black people living with HIV to maintain undetectable viral load.
In the U.S., about one in seven HIV-positive people do not know that they live with HIV. Our HIV criminalization laws give incentives for not getting tested for HIV. The minute someone is diagnosed with HIV, they presumably become a criminal and have to disclose their diagnosis to all potential sexual partners. As a result, we have a big number of people who prefer to not get tested and end up developing uncontrollable HIV viral loads and other underlying conditions, making them vulnerable to COVID-19.
While some people have the luxury of politicizing wearing masks, essential workers do not have a choice: When they leave their homes, they are going to a battlefield. They worry every day they may get COVID-19 and bring it home.
In Detroit, a bus driver who spoke about people not wearing masks was later diagnosed with COVID-19. He was placed in an intensive care unit and died few days later. Some essential workers spend weeks in tents or living in their cars without going home, in fear of taking COVID-19 home to their loved ones.
With the COVID-19 crisis, we have learned about the poor working conditions of some essential workers. For example, more than 500 employees were diagnosed with COVID-19 in a meatpacking factory in South Dakota.
President Trump, at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, argued that COVID-19 testing increases the numbers of COVID-19 cases and makes him look bad. Now that states are trying to reopen activities and people are flooding beaches and bars, what is next for essential workers? Our lives are going to go back to a relatively normal routine. Are we going to pretend that nothing happened? Something significant happened: Essential workers made an ultimate sacrifice so many of us could shelter in and enjoy the privilege of being able to work from the comfort of our homes. They stocked grocery shelves so we can put food on our table. Many of the immigrants who work in agriculture didn’t take a day off; they worked hard and harvested our fruits and vegetables so we can be fed.
Will essential workers become unnoticed again? We’ve been thanking them with cards, good thoughts, prayers, free coffee, and driving and flyover parades. These were great gestures and an important step in recognizing how much essential workers matter. But it is time for us to define how much they matter and put a price tag on their value.
Essential workers deserve actions leading to policies that recognize their value. They deserve:
- Health care coverage and childcare benefits.
- Paid leave and at least two days off per week.
- A living minimum wage of at least $15 per hour.
- Safe working environment policies.
- A stimulus package or “thank-you government checks.”
- Free scholarships.
- Access to affordable loans.
Until we take this opportunity to define how much essential workers matter, cards, prayers, good thoughts, parades, and big coffee will not move their rights forward. This is a time for systemic change on how we treat essential workers.
Much of that push can and should come form our HIV advocacy groups, if possible. Because so many essential workers are low-income people living with HIV, these groups can and should develop an advocacy agenda to demand benefits, health care coverage, and a living wage for these workers.