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When paid sick leave is life or death
With exploitative labor practices impacting workers more rampantly than ever, service workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, Vara*, a disabled, immunocompromised grocery worker in New York City, was forced to make a sickening decision: to keep their minimum wage job and be at high risk for contracting COVID-19, or safeguard their health and lose their income.
“My health had declined so rapidly. I didn't feel like I was living, just surviving,” Vara told Supermaker, recalling the stress of working―despite feeling unwell―so as not to use up sick days they might need later. “I could see COVID-19 getting worse [and] I knew there was no way I could keep working there. I had to quit. It would be too much for my immune system to handle—and I can't afford an ICU bed.”
As COVID-19 cases mount exponentially across the country, infrastructural devastation has crept into practically every industry. While some companies have facilitated opportunities to work from home, countless service workers have faced pressure to continue working under precarious conditions such as inadequate or non-existent health insurance benefits, zero paid sick leave, and sudden termination. These injustices have incited viral critiques calling for radical socio-economic reform and an end to capitalist exploitation. Even Britney Spears has called for revolution.
Even though 75 percent of Americans receive some paid sick days, just 25 percent of food service workers do, illuminating an already-existent need for industry-wide change. In the midst of this crisis, many employees have been required to continue showing up to work at non-essential establishments like restaurants, coffee shops, and retail stores, despite urgent CDC recommendations for quarantine and social distancing practices. And yet, because unpaid sick leave means missing necessary wages, many workers, like Vara, are faced with exceedingly difficult decisions.
While the current global pandemic has engendered unprecedented economic catastrophe, it has also brought to light unethical structural issues in which wage workers are denied adequate access to basic benefits and financial security. With exploitative labor practices impacting workers more rampantly than ever, some service employees are kicking open the door to more comprehensive labor rights nationwide, demanding justice from companies who seem to value profit over human life.
At a time when Congress has strategically excluded many workers from vital legislation, like the paid sick leave bill, marginalized employees are left all the more vulnerable to resultant inequalities as COVID-19 escalates and more and more businesses close their doors. Disabled or immunocompromised workers, many of whom rely on already-insufficient social services, must social distance or face an increased risk of infection. Without paid time off, their lives are at stake amid the hazard of rapidly-spreading infection rates. Communities of color, too, are shouldering a disproportionate risk. About four in ten Latinos working in New York City—many of whom are employed within the service industry—have lost their jobs because of coronavirus.
“If we’re sick, it’s our responsibility to get our shift covered. [Only a few] have been employed long enough to have any paid time off accrued,” says Chalo*, a barista working in a Manhattan coffee shop. “In the past, I’ve had coworkers who, in flu season, would show up to work and vomit and be sick. People get desperate, and they’re scared of getting fired. We don’t have any benefits. We don’t even have hand sanitizer.”
I see all the jokes about COVID-19 that people I consider to be friends making and I wonder if they know how scared I am as a hiv+ transsexual who works as a barista— 💪🏼 (@cis_jenner) March 12, 2020
While the novel coronavirus has brought about exceptional circumstances like cleared inventory, checkout lines that circle the block, and toilet paper hoarding, many company policies remain largely the same―and, in some cases, have worsened―as far as worker welfare is concerned. Safety policies have not been adequately implemented in many workplaces, and employees face various hazards like broken soap dispensers and bans on gloves and other sanitary equipment, despite the high risk of contamination.
Employees at chains like Chipotle, Starbucks, and McDonald’s faced retaliation for taking sick leave long before the COVID-19 crisis. Now, as companies work desperately to recuperate lost profit in the wake of the pandemic, employers have resorted to more drastic measures, disenfranchising their staff along the way. Independent bookstores like McNally Jackson and Powell’s have laid off employees en masse, inciting backlash that has mobilized crowdfunding, mutual aid, and other forms of allyship to help subsidize workers’ lost income. Even companies that operate well beyond the necessary means required to provide paid leave for employees have failed to do so.
Supermaker spoke with Grayson*, an artist and restaurant server based in California whose hours have been halved as the business has nearly halted since the pandemic erupted. “I’m getting sent home from six-hour shifts after two-and-a-half hours. My main concern with my employment status is that I will still be ‘employed,’ [but] I expect my income over the next month to be cut in half, and I will be ineligible for unemployment support that I [need to] put towards rent and bills,” Grayson said.“My employer has a history of denying sick leave for employees, and [has even terminated] employees without cause. I’m scared.”
Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon―whose valuation is nearing $1 trillion―is encouraging workers to donate their paid time off to their coworkers, while refusing to offer financial support to help team members make it through the crisis with their dignity and livelihood intact. Stories like these harken back to other pre-pandemic accounts of corporate greed, like when Walmart held a Thanksgiving charity drive for hungry workers.
Once again, and perhaps now more than ever, employees are being urged to fend for themselves and dole out resources to each other, as their employers have proven unaccountable to providing viable aid. Elena*, a waiter at a farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn, shared that their employer is only offering “unpaid leave if we get sick. They claim to be in a precarious financial situation and can’t afford to extend their time off policy and are planning to stay open as long as possible.”
Whole Foods is controlled by one of the world's richest people.— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) March 13, 2020
But Jeff Bezos wants under-paid employees who are healthy to fund sick leave for those who aren't so that it won't cost his bottom line. https://t.co/A7Ub38LTyq
Without a federal shelter-in-place mandate, disparate regulations vary from city to city and state to state, endangering workers whose inessential labor is still required, even as many businesses are shutting down en masse. Though many service workers do fill essential roles, existent hierarchical structures have obscured that awareness. And while some states are stepping up to advocate for the integral social and economic value of service work, too many company policies fail to reflect this truth.
Without a guaranteed income, insurance, or paid time off, workers are scrambling to file for unemployment if and when possible, as incomes domino to a halt. Nevertheless, labor organizers are gaining substantive traction. Many employees have unionized or bolstered already-existent unions, as evidenced by the 30,000 Verizon workers who recently won the fight for paid leave and other crucial benefits.
Across the country, workers are torn between being able to pay bills, put food on the table, and stay alive, highlighting class disparities and wealth inequalities which have always existed, but are now impossible to ignore―even by those who seek to profit from an unchanged status quo. Though social movements and solidarity efforts abound, this crisis highlights a grim reality for many American workers. Public health and human life ought to be protected at all costs, yet too many service workers are stuck at the frontlines of a global pandemic—providing essential resources to millions—all the while neglected by their own employers and government leaders.
“We got an email from one of the owners with instructions that don’t actually make any sense. They’re asking us to wash our hands every time we take cash, which, for a register person, is about 250 hand washes a day,” said Chalo―the New York City barista. “No one is doing that. No one can do that. The soap dispensers are broken.”
*Names in this article have been changed to protect the livelihoods of the service workers who bravely shared their experience.