‘We’re risking our life’: coronavirus takes a toll on essential workers still on the job
Roughly 16 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the wake of immediate layoffs and furloughs due to shutdowns to try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, triggering a generational economic crisis for millions of Americans.
Essential workers still on the job continue to get paid, but the stress of working as the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States is taking a heavy toll on those working in grocery stores, transportation, food service, sanitation and other areas as they risk exposure to the virus for themselves and their families.
The Guardian spoke to several workers who are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic about their recent experiences.
Gail Rogers: McDonald’s cashier for six years in Tampa, Florida
McDonald’s lobbied against paid sick leave inclusion for many of its workers in federal coronavirus relief legislation, as workers at McDonald’s franchises, about 517,000 of them, receive no paid sick leave.
Gail Rogers, a 60-year-old cashier and kiosk operator, is one of those workers.
“Two weeks ago I had to go to the hospital because I woke up very ill. I was tested for different viruses, including the coronavirus, and then I had to go home to be quarantined. I called the hospital the next day and they let me know my test came back negative. I was cleared from that, but I am supposed to be wearing a mask. I asked my manager if I could wear a mask and was told I couldn’t use a mask,” said Rogers.
She isn’t provided any paid sick time off, health insurance benefits, or given additional hazard pay while working during the pandemic.
“If we get sick, who is going to run the store? We don’t want to be in a workplace where we feel they’re not supporting us or they can’t pay us sick leave or give us health insurance if anything critical comes up,” Rogers added.
McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Matt Monaghan: public transit bus operator for 24 years in Staten Island, New York
New York is the current center of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, with more than 4,000 dead. Through the pandemic, public transit bus drivers have continued to operate regular schedules, though bus driver unions are working to develop reduced schedules with the city to protect drivers and the public from exposure to the virus.
“I myself have anxiety, when people are on the bus, of catching this thing. We have families to go home to and we don’t want to bring it home to our families. It’s tough times right now but we’re doing the job and moving the city,” said Monaghan. “I carry my own Lysol on the bus, I disinfect what I can so I know it’s done right, because I’m afraid of getting this thing.”
Monaghan noted several bus operators have been or are currently hospitalized with coronavirus, and is hoping the bus schedules are reduced so operators can take time off to stay home.
Virender Rana: Uber driver for six years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Rana hasn’t taken a day off in an attempt to try to make up for the earnings he’s losing from the drastic decline in riders. Usually he makes $100 to $300 a day, now he’s making around $50 a day for a 10- to 12-hour shift – less than minimum wage.
“I have no money to pay the bills. As far as the maintenance, I have a couple issues with my car, but I can’t fix it at this moment because I don’t have any savings,” Rana said.
He’s unable to make his credit card payments, and won’t be able to cover his upcoming car payment. Rana noted the only thing Uber has offered drivers still on the road is giving a month off their car insurance payment through Uber.
“We are taking chances. We’re risking our life out here, so they could at least do something to protect us, give us some type of credit, step up and do something for drivers still on the road,” said Rana. “Earnings are way, way down, but I’m still trying. There’s no appreciation, no comment from Uber, no thank you to drivers still providing services for this company. It seems they don’t care if you live or you die.”
A spokesperson for Uber referred to a blogpost issued by the company to outline the company’s pandemic support initiatives.
Willy Solis: Shipt shopper since October 2019 in Dallas, Texas
Solis is immunocompromised, but he’s working through the coronavirus pandemic because he needs the income. He doesn’t even have basic hand sanitizer and claims Shipt, a delivery service owned by Target, doesn’t provide any sort of training or support for shoppers through the pandemic, aside from sending them guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have zero phone support. You call the support number, it hangs up on you. Chat is taking hours. The other option is email, and Shipt is saying it’s taking them 10 days or longer to respond. We’re left out here to fend for ourselves, address issues and the customer’s orders as best as we can,” said Solis.
Tips have been decreasing, said Solis, thanks to frustrated customers, and there have been issues with tipping on the app. Shipt workers rely significantly on tips to subsidize their pay.
The money he makes is “not enough to compensate for the risk we’re taking and the level of support we have to expel”, he said. “We’re begging for support right now. Without being able to complete orders, it’s causing a situation financially where we’re being decimated and it’s becoming worthless for us to do this job,” added Solis.
A Shipt spokesperson attributed delays to the increase of demand during the pandemic, and said the company is hiring more support agents and developing a way to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for shoppers. “From the beginning, we’ve encouraged shoppers only to schedule themselves when they feel safe, and we have provided our shoppers with healthy hygiene habits recommended by the CDC,” said the spokesperson.
Jerome Westpoint: sanitation worker for over 40 years in Atlanta, Georgia
Waste collection is consistently ranked one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, and the coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse.
“I’m in the industrial side of the business,” said Westpoint. “You do come into contact with hazardous material, sometimes you know it, sometimes you don’t because everyone doesn’t tell you what they’re putting in those containers.”
“You always have those fears because we pick up at hospitals, grocery stores, places like that, and you’re going house to house. We don’t know what is inside those containers. All we know is there is waste in there, but we don’t know if people in these homes are infected with coronavirus and we don’t know how they’re disposing of their waste.”
He said workers are still waiting on orders to receive face masks to wear during work hours and it took several weeks for management to impose limitations on waste pickup, such as not picking up waste outside of containers.
Mariah Mitchell: Lyft driver for three years in Seattle, Washington
Every week, Mitchell, a single mother of three, pays $265 weekly to rent a car through Lyft, which has continued to bill full payments through the coronavirus pandemic despite declines in rides. She now receives a priority day once a week where Lyft directs rides to her, equating to about 20 rides for Mitchell. The rest of the week, rides are sparse, but Mitchell is still expected to continue making her car lease payments in addition to living expenses.
“There are no rides. You’re lucky to get one,” said Mitchell. The only day she’s making money is on the one priority day per week she receives from Lyft, and she noted even those have decreased in pay. “Before the pandemic, I could do 20 rides and make about $10 a ride. Now the rides are about $6 per ride. It should have gone up, not down, because we’re taking a risk.”
She’s been unable to file for unemployment benefits yet, and Mitchell is concerned that she’ll receive little to no benefits due to the income she is still able to make. Mitchell also explained Lyft is not providing any PPE, and it’s been unavailable in the stores, making it impossible to sanitize her vehicle in between rides.
A Lyft spokesperson said in an email the company is working on finding new ways for drivers to earn income, such as delivery partnerships.
Joshua Spence: office janitor in Lubbock, Texas
Through the coronavirus pandemic, Joshua Spence’s work schedule as an office janitor hasn’t changed, nor has his low pay at $8.63 an hour. He spends the majority of his time at work directed to do menial cleaning jobs as the majority of the offices are not being used, but several office workers have continued to come in through the pandemic.
“We have people who shouldn’t be here coming on to campus to work in their offices so they can get out of the house, violating the stay-at-home order, and I don’t know where they’ve been, what they’ve done, or how seriously they are taking this to begin with, yet I have to be here every workday to clean everything over and over again,” said Spence. “Every time folks go out unnecessarily we cleaning staff have to work extra hard and hope their carelessness won’t hurt us.”
Eric Anderson: grocery store clerk, Mulberry, Florida
Eric Anderson, 63, works at a grocery store to supplement his social security retirement income. At high risk due to his age and diabetes, Anderson has felt uneasy about the crowds at his grocery store in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis refrained from issuing a stay at home order until 1 April. He recently has taken a two-week unpaid leave and will probably extend it through the pandemic.
“Nobody was staying home, so I had to,” said Anderson. “I’m not getting paid, but as I told my manager I’d rather be broke than dead. The people in my area were business as usual. What got to me was families, elderly people, babies, pregnant women, all came shopping. I worked through this past Friday getting more and more stressed, and when I went in last Saturday, every register was open, people lined up, self checkouts full, aisles full and I decided, enough.”
Jessica Hockaday: Instacart shopper for one year in Raleigh, North Carolina
Jessica Hockaday has worked as an Instacart shopper for the past year in Raleigh, North Carolina, but has been unable to work the past few weeks because she has a heart condition – cardiomyopathy – and is high risk for Covid-19.
“It was either my health or make money,” said Hockaday. “We just paid our bills yesterday. We have nothing left and my husband’s next paycheck doesn’t come in for another couple weeks. They truly don’t care about us.”
A mother of two, Hockaday started working for Instacart to supplement her husband’s income, which isn’t enough for her family to make ends meet. While she’s been out of work during the pandemic, Instacart has not provided her with any income. She was ineligible to file for unemployment benefits as Instacart classifies their workers as independent contractors, though she will be eligible under the US Senate’s $2tn stimulus plan.
“It’s funny they call us independent contractors, but we get in trouble if we decline too many delivery batches. They’re entirely in control and get nasty with you for removing a batch that wasn’t paying enough,” added Hockaday.
An Instacart spokesperson told the Guardian in an email: “The health and safety of our entire community – shoppers, customers, and employees – is our first priority. Our goal is to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers, while also proactively taking the appropriate precautionary measures to operate safely.”