A Surreal Fever Dream: How Essential Workers are Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic

Richard Mayne dives deep into the current plight of essential workers across the country, uncovering shocking political strife and human suffering.

By Richard Mayne

“That’s all I hear from the time I enter the hospital until the time I leave: an overwhelming whizzing sound of oxygen tanks in use, and coughing fits so intense, I would’ve thought it was Pertussis [whooping cough], if I didn’t already know what it was,” says an ER nurse from Worcester, MA, who wishes to remain anonymous. “When I lay down at night, all I hear are oxygen tanks, and all I see are the faces. Faces filled with a kind of fright and terror I will never be able to explain.” The young woman in her mid-30s audibly sighed over the phone, and her voice cracked as if she were on the verge of tears. “I’m f—— petrified every day I go to work, but I want the people I care for and work with to know they’re not alone.”

This is what a hero looks like in the time of COVID-19. Those still working, regardless of the industry they work in, deserve to be compensated as such.

The economy of the United States has been in freefall, losing altitude at an incredible rate—with a plastic trash bag for a parachute, a piece of unspooled yarn for its ripcord, and a diving instructor with little to no understanding of how gravity works.

Financial experts and institutions have concluded that the United States is in the midst of a recession, even though the National Bureau of Economic Research must first see declining GDP for two quarters before making the declaration official. The second quarter of 2020 is on track to confirm that reality, which will make this the first recession in over a decade. Some economists point out that a full-on economic depression is looming if the nation doesn’t tread carefully.

In response, on March 27, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act, a piece of legislation that came with a promise of two trillion dollars in aid for workers, small businesses, and corporations hit hardest by the pandemic, in addition to aid for state and local governments and public health institutions.

The Washington Post reported an estimated 70 percent of all small businesses applied for some sort of economic relief. Within four weeks, the $377 billion dollars dedicated to keeping small businesses alive was gone. This prompted both Congress and the House to pass a second economic stimulus package, totaling $484 billion in aid, with an additional $320 billion of it going to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. Congress is debating even more economic stimulus.

Unemployment insurance rights for workers were extended under the CARES Act to last at least three months, if not longer, in order to last the duration of the pandemic. This was intended to allow those with unemployment claims—as of the second week of May, that number stands at over 36.5 million—the possibility of receiving an extra $600 per week, and many now have.

But what about the workers that have been deemed “essential” (as if they were anything but that before COVID-19)? Are their companies doing all they can to ensure the health and safety of their employees? Are companies offering hazard pay? In other words, what is being done to compensate those on the front lines of this pandemic who are caught in the crosshairs?

The answer depends on the person you ask and the company they work for.

For example, if you know a store manager at Tractor Supply Co. who owes you some money, you may want to give them a call. That’s because the Tennessee-based company—who have locations in multiple states, including Massachusetts—are handing out $1,000 bonuses to store managers. Other businesses are taking action as well. CVS is offering their employees bonuses of up to $500, while Walmart is giving full-time employees a $300 bonus and part-time employees a $150 bonus. Other companies are offering a bump in hourly wages. Stop & Shop has given their employees a 10% raise. Corporations such as Target, Costco, Amazon and the aforementioned Tractor Supply Co. are paying employees an extra $2 per hour.

While many of the millions of unemployed Americans are left to wonder if what they’re being given will be enough, many of those who are still working are left to wonder if the added incentives they’re getting are worth the risks.

“I don’t think it’s enough, to be honest,” said Gabe Herredia, 26, a warehouse worker employed by Amazon. He lives in Seattle, WA, but is from upstate New York, near the city of Buffalo. “I took the job in November [of 2019], because I needed an extra income on top of the position I have in my career field,” he explained. “I moved out here for that [position], and now we’re working remotely. I can’t leave this other job though, because it helps pay for extra expenses. What I want to do is go home, but it’s even scarier back there, especially in the cities.” The sincerity in his voice was palpable even through the laptop microphone. “I’m getting an extra two dollars an hour during this pandemic. I work eight hours a day, three days a week. You do the math. I make [less than] $50 in hazard pay a week, before taxes.”

Other companies that have remained open haven’t offered any kind of hazard pay or compensation. Dunkin Donuts—a company synonymous with the state of Massachusetts—gave their employees a one-time check for 50 bucks as well as what was essentially a “thank you” card.

“The topic of hazard pay is tough for me,” said Emily Ikonen, 21, a junior at Worcester State University, who works at Dunkin Donuts. “Many employees have all received hazard pay, [but] my company hasn’t. In fact, hours have been cut almost in half. [Yet,] we’re still expected to come in and work, risking our health. [You’re] coming in contact with hundreds of people a day who aren’t required to wash their hands or cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing, etc. It makes working feel dangerous and stressful.”

This is a sentiment Kassidy Murphy, 21, a junior at Worcester State, can agree with,  despite working for Stop & Shop—a company who has begun to pay their employees hazard pay. 

“The stress of going into work and having to be extremely cautious every moment of the day has been difficult to adjust to,” said Murphy, with more than a hint of frustration. “I find it especially difficult because many customers tend to ignore our safety precautions, making our jobs more stressful. It is astonishing to see that there are still so many people who are careless about the whole situation.”

It would seem essential workers are all feeling some paranoia and stress over having to continue working, knowing full-well that on any day at any time, they could possibly be exposed to COVID-19 by simply doing their jobs.

According to the CDC, at least 9,000 healthcare workers have contracted COVID-19, and twenty-seven have died from connections to it. These data are now more than a month old, however, so the numbers are likely higher. The Food and Commercial Workers International Union reported that it is safe to assume that thousands if not tens of thousand grocery store workers have contracted COVID-19 with at least thirty dying as a result. A similar pattern can be found with warehouse workers; at least nineteen of Amazon’s warehouse locations across the country having at least one positive case with at least seven worker deaths linked to COVID-19. Sioux Falls, SD, has become a hotspot for the illness, with one pork-processing plant having over 700 positive cases of COVID-19, with one confirmed death due to the disease being reported thus far.

In spite of this, most companies aren’t going to offer any kind of hazard pay at all. According to data collected by WorldatWork, 65% of companies said they were not planning to offer workers hazard pay but planned instead to offer employees certain perks. Nine percent said they would not be doing either, meaning that three quarters of companies in the survey do not intend to provide hazard pay.

While companies may not be doing much in terms of providing essential workers with hazard pay, Congress is exploring options to help ease the burden on essential workers during this global health crisis. What is being dubbed the “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” has passed the House of Representatives and sets aside $200 billion for essential workers. It must pass the Republican-controlled Senate and be signed by the President before becoming law, however. Likely, the law will undergo changes before that happens.

Under the law, eligible workers could see up to an additional $25,000 if they currently earn less than $200,000 per year.

It’s unclear how the process would work, however; all essential workers would qualify—workers in healthcare, grocery stores, warehouses, as well as bus drivers, train conductors, postal workers, and more. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Gary Peters (D-MI), among others, along with Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have all fully endorsed the idea, while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has indicated that she is in favor of attempting to pass another stimulus package that would aid essential workers.

It would be fitting if a fund was created for essential workers called the Heroes Fund because that is exactly what every essential worker is in the time of COVID-19: a hero. To all frontline workers, if nobody has told you so today, then I will: Thank you.

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