This Labor Day, I am grateful to have a job, and I am deeply grateful for the labor of essential workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic means tens of thousands of Washingtonians are unexpectedly finding themselves out of work. In King County, more than 460,000 people have filed an initial unemployment claim since early March. The July data show an unemployment rate of 8.3% (in July 2019 it was 3%). High unemployment means more families face this Labor Day struggling to feed themselves, pay bills and make rent.
Some workers are working remotely. Those who can do their job from home, like me, are most often working in higher-paid jobs in engineering, management and technology. Not only do our jobs minimize our exposure to COVID-19, but we are also less likely to be laid off, furloughed or have our hours reduced. We are among the most privileged workers this Labor Day. My University of Washington colleague Marissa Baker developed an index showing that three in four jobs cannot be done from home. Think bus drivers, meatpacking workers and domestic workers, but also dentists, nurses and obstetricians.
Workers have not “all been in this together” — some jobs and some workers are more impacted than others. For a start, too many of the jobs with the highest unemployment rates are ones that have a sizable proportion of Black, Indigenous and people of color, and women, such as food preparation and serving occupations, personal-care services and construction. Before he was killed, George Floyd most recently worked as a security guard at a restaurant and bar. Like so many others, he lost his job when restaurants closed under Minneapolis’ stay-at-home order.
Floyd’s death on Memorial Day while in police custody meant this summer of COVID-19 was destined to be interwoven with the ongoing mobilizations around Black Lives. Organized labor is also engaging in anti-racism action. On Juneteenth, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in ports along the West Coast marched for Black lives, explicitly linking their labor activism with issues of systemic racism and racist violence.
This pandemic shines the spotlight on all “essential workers.” Breonna Taylor, killed in her home in March by Louisville, Kentucky, police, was an emergency medical technician and an aspiring nurse. She was an essential worker.
As the pandemic exploded, defining what it meant to be an essential worker was a bit woolly. Then Washington state produced a list of “essential critical infrastructure workers” designated as critical for protecting the health and well-being of Washingtonians. Essential workers work in hospitals and grocery stores, in meatpacking plants and warehouses. They’re keeping public transit running, delivering the mail and maintaining our energy supply. They’re also more at risk of infection than those working remotely.
Essential workers are heroes, so we are told. Yet they have had to fight for personal protective equipment (even in hospitals), better workplace-safety precautions and hazard pay. Early on, health-care workers raised the alarm about low stores of masks, gloves and gowns. Workers at Amazon and other companies organized a nationwide “essential workers general strike” to protest unsafe working conditions. Yakima Valley fruit packers went on strike, rightly concerned about lax health protocols given the spike in Yakima County. Labor actions such as these improve workplace safety.
Figuring out how many workers have been infected and died from COVID-19 is astonishingly difficult. Washington only recently started reporting on cases by job type, and the counts are spotty at best. Health-care practitioners and support occupations are overrepresented among cases, alongside workers in farming, fishing and forestry, and personal-care services. Together, these jobs are disproportionately held by women and Black, Latino and immigrant workers.
We also need better reporting. Efforts to fill such government-data gaps include work by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News’ “Lost on the Frontline,” which “aims to count and honor every U.S. health-care worker” who dies from coronavirus. As of Aug. 26, their count sits at 1,079, including James Simpson, a mental-health worker in Burien. He expressed concern about how his employer was handling the outbreak.
International Workers’ Memorial Day is April 28 each year. Ceremonies across the world honor those who died from work-related injuries or illness and focus on strengthening safety and health protections in the workplace: “Remember the dead; fight for the living.” As you might expect, it is a somber occasion, with the names of fallen workers read aloud. Next year the list will be long, but it will be longer without greater protections for all workers. Labor rights and unions have been under attack for decades — the result is protests with signs like, “We risk our lives to save yours. #PPEnow.” The labor movement is making the case: This is the moment for Congress and other political leaders to do better. Essential workers deserve not only our respect, but also the dignity of basic labor protections.