One of my routines in the early pandemic lockdown was to shop at a big box retailer at 6 a.m. Along with food, a key purchase was fabric and supplies that allowed me to make face masks with my very rudimentary sewing skills.
Over the weeks, I struck up rapport with the fabric lady Lilly (not her real name) and probed a bit about her situation and concerns. Hesitantly, she opened up.
Lilly did not yet have a mask then and customers did not always respect social distancing guidelines. She volunteered for extra hours as her husband could no longer work because he suffered a stroke. Lilly was quite concerned about bringing the virus home.
Going to work was a daily worry. Exhausted, Lilly contemplated vacation days but did not want to deplete precious days off if disaster would hit later.
Lilly’s employment placed her in a slightly better protected position than many essential workers. She at least has a full-time position that comes with benefits including vacation and insurance. Many essential workers, particularly those in the lower wage brackets, are not so well protected.
Of the 30-plus million workers in “front-line industries” (grocery, convenience and drugstores, public transit, trucking, warehouse and postal service, building cleaning services, health care, child care and social services), one out of four holds only part-time status.
Compensation of 30% of all front-line workers falls into the near-poor (less than twice poverty level wages) and poverty categories. Eleven percent do not receive health insurance. Of these industries, building and cleaning services scored the lowest with 37% in part-time employment, 58% earning near-poor and poverty wages and 29% without insurance. These individuals carry the responsibility of decontaminating our facilities.
COVID-19 presents a whole different set and level of risks and hardships to these workers: their own infection, increased exposure of family members, insufficient and subpar protective equipment, need for child care as schools are no longer physically open.
Policy recommendations for protection and fairness have called for proper safety standards relating to infectious diseases, additional or hazard pay, paid medical leave, access to free health care and testing, child care subsidies, accountability for implementation and access to unions to have a voice toward the design and enactment of these provisions.
I am sure all of us have made extra efforts to thank our front-line workers. But it is not enough to just say thank you. In gratitude, fairness and obligation to these workers who take the risks to protect us and enable us to do what we do, our response must be vocal and active.
We must express our outrage when workers are terminated for speaking out on hazardous working conditions and making demands for their well-being. We can call our elected representatives to highlight the priority and necessity of these policies and their rightful claim on the almost $3 trillion rescue package. We can support groups that advocate for the workers. The placards we hold can say “protect our workers” in addition to “thank you.”
Without such action, we are accountable to James as he questions, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (Jas 2:15-16).
Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.