Workers who were deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic and publicly praised for continuing to work in-person are now fighting for permanent improvements to working conditions, wages and benefits as safety protections are lifted and they still grapple with the impact of working through the long crisis.
Millions of essential workers contracted Covid-19 while working through the pandemic. Thousands died as a result or lost co-workers, friends and family members to the virus. Many who caught the virus still experience long-term symptoms and Covid-19 cases and deaths are still a concern in many areas of the US. This is especially true in low-income, predominantly Black and Latino communities where vaccination rates have been lagging despite these communities being hit hardest by the virus.
Now, as Covid-19 restrictions have lifted across swaths of America and the economy has come back to life, many essential workers are still fearful for their safety and angry at their working conditions.
Clara Vega, a general merchandise manager at a Kroger-owned chain Food 4 Less grocery store in Los Angeles, California, who has worked at the company for 29 years, lost four family members to coronavirus through the pandemic, and got sick herself in July 2021, along with many of her co-workers.
Through the pandemic, Vega explained she constantly worried about getting sick, her family members getting sick, and on a regular basis struggled to deal with customers who refused to follow coronavirus safety guidelines such as mask wearing and social distancing. She missed a month of work after catching the coronavirus and experienced long-haul symptoms for several months until she was recently vaccinated.
But she still fears the virus for herself and family members as mask mandates have been lifted for those who have been vaccinated, but with no way for workers to enforce those restrictions.
Her union, UFCW Local 770, is in new contract negotiations with Food4Less in southern and central California. Vega criticized Food4Less for failing to negotiate a contract by this point while Kroger provided more than $22m in compensation to its CEO in 2020.
“Now they expect you to run everything the same as before Covid. And it’s not the same, everything’s different. You get pressure from management saying you have to finish workloads in this amount of time or you’re going to get a write-up or called into the office, and it’s not fair. I don’t understand why they expect us to be this certain way,” she said.
Around one-third of US adults identified as being essential workers during the pandemic, and these workers reported increased rates of mental health issues caused by working in-person through the pandemic, such as increased rates of anxiety, depression, stress, suicidal thoughts, insomnia and burnout.
“People are so burned out,” said Donna Nelson, a nurse in the behavioral unit at Logan health center in Kalispell, Montana, in regards to staffing issues that have persisted through the pandemic as workers are constantly being asked to come in to cover shifts. ”It feels to me there’s absolutely no intention of taking care of nurses during the pandemic, who are the boots on the ground taking care of these people. And then it shows very much at the bargaining table, because they don’t want to do anything different than they’re already doing.”
Nelson is one of 650 nurses at her hospital in Kalispell, Montana, who are currently fighting for their first union contract, represented by SEIU 1199NW. They recently conducted a three-day strike in early June. She explained through the pandemic the understaffing has prevented nurses from being able to take breaks or go to the bathroom, while concerns with having adequate personal protective equipment, reusing masks, and worrying about the virus or having to take time off or cover shifts due to exposure are still constant concerns.
“We want to be able to provide the best care for everyone, but we have to be able to take care of ourselves and that is not happening,” added Nelson.
Despite the risks and impacts essential workers experienced through the pandemic, most employers that did offer a hazard pay increase only did so temporarily. About half of all workers in low-wage occupations were deemed essential during the pandemic, with an estimated 22.3 million essential workers in occupations with median wages below $15 an hour.
While pay remained low for millions of essential workers, several of the largest employers in the US reported record profits during the pandemic, but shared just a fraction of those profits with their workers in the form of hazard pay increases or bonuses. The wealth of US billionaires in the first 13 months of the pandemic increased by 55%, more than $1.6tn.
Charlie Ulch, 24, worked at Peet’s Coffee in the Chicago area throughout the pandemic. He became involved with union organizing in response to trying to coordinate with co-workers to demand their management implement certain Covid-19 safety protections and protocols for workers.
In recent months, coronavirus safety protections, such as mask mandates, have been scaled back, while workers who were deemed essential throughout the pandemic are expected to work as normal with little to no change in how they are treated in the workplace.
“All this time we’ve been told we’re essential, we’re vital, we matter. But they’re not giving us any of the tools that would imply that. They’re not giving us financial stability. Management will say ‘we’re all a big family’, but say ‘no’ when we ask for things like paid sick time or hazard pay,” said Ulch.
He added: “If we’re essential, we deserve a voice and a seat at the table when it comes to how decisions are being made in the workplace, because time and time again we’ve been told or promised things, but they’re never delivered. I think people are starting to realize that companies are never going to give us the respect we truly deserve unless we make them, and it’s kind of a sad reality that it’s come to that.”