When the first person in the United States to die of the coronavirus checked in to a Kirkland hospital, the union nurses, techs and other health-care workers were ready to treat him, knowing the risk it posed to their own health.
But it’s not just the direct medical workers who face this risk. The people who clean the hospital, wash the laundry, cook meals, provide security and do a multitude of other essential jobs come to work each night knowing they could get sick.
In a public-health crisis like the coronavirus, working people are on the front lines of the response. For some, this will be their finest hour. This is when years of education and training will save lives. Many of these are union workers who have had to fight for every penny they’ve earned throughout their careers. And now, we’re all relying on them to perform these highly dangerous jobs.
But with an outbreak as serious as coronavirus, the impact will be felt by everyone — not just those caring for patients or cleaning public spaces.
As the virus spreads, it is inevitable that people’s work lives will be impacted. Businesses will temporarily close, people will be asked to work remotely, and sick people will need to stay home. For salaried workers, this may not be a big deal. But for low-wage and hourly employees, this can be extremely disruptive. Many workers will be forced to go without pay if their shift is canceled. Sick people will need to decide between missing a paycheck or contaminating others because they don’t have enough paid sick leave.
It’s hard not to blame our economic system, which has given so much power to those at the top. As the percentage of workers with a union contract has decreased, many people have been left with little or no rights at work. Even in King County, where union membership is among the highest in the nation, people are having to go to work sick because they can’t forgo a day’s pay.
This is also an issue where race and gender are still inextricably linked. We know that women and people of color are more likely to work in jobs — such as those in the service industry — that will be disrupted by the coronavirus. And, as a community, we must oppose Asian-owned businesses and workers being treated with racism and discrimination.
As part of the response to this crisis, our business and political leaders should not merely focus on containing the outbreak, but also on how we can protect the workers who will suffer. Large businesses should promise that they will pay people if their worksite closes due to coronavirus. The state should allow workers from small businesses to collect unemployment if their employers cancel shifts.
Hospitals should do everything they can to ensure the safety of health-care workers, especially those on the front lines of infection control. They should ensure adequate tools, equipment and training are provided.
In a public-health crisis, nobody should be forced to work while sick or send a sick child to school because they can’t afford to take a day off. It isn’t right for the lowest-wage and most vulnerable workers to bear the heaviest burden from the virus.
During this uncertain time, working people are here to keep our community healthy and safe. If we come together, this difficult time will prove the quality of our Washington and our humanity.