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For more than 10 years, Benito Huerta, a farmworker in Southern California, woke at dawn to perform hard labor in the fields of Ventura County, harvesting blackberries and strawberries. He did so without holiday or sick pay, without bonuses or benefits, without health insurance or a work permit.
Then earlier this year, avoiding exposure to a deadly virus became part of his daily routine.
In late December, COVID-19 infections broke out in China and quickly spread to Europe. By early March, Italians and then New Yorkers were showing their appreciation for “essential workers” by chanting, applauding and banging on pots and pans while hanging out of their windows. In no time, the deadly virus and nightly cheers made their way to California as the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11.
On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, giving him authority to mobilize workers in 16 critical job sectors to ensure, “continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom then introduced an executive order requiring workers deemed essential, like Huerta, across those 16 sectors to continue their work, “to protect the health and well-being of all Californians”.
Farmworkers, healthcare workers and food workers had provided critical services to their communities long before the pandemic. But they had never been recognized as essential. “I have to go to work to provide for my family, to pay rent, to buy food, to pay bills,” said Huerta.
Workers in relatively low-paying jobs need the money, of course, but helping the community in a time of dire need is a point of pride as well. “I need a paycheck and I feel useful in a moment of need,” said Linda Wald, a nurse practitioner in the East Bay.
And now the pandemic has added significant health risks to the burden of tiring, poorly paying work. “Without the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment), we’re putting our safety on the line and the customers’ safety as well,” Alfred Justo, a South Bay barista and college student, said in an interview.
But he’s not about to quit: “Working at Starbucks is a necessity,” he said. It’s how he pays the rent.
The government mandates simply cleared the way for essential workers to continue working to make ends meet while in the service of their communities during the shelter-in-place order Newsom had issued. Aware there were risks of exposure to the virus, the workers were unaware their commitment would be met with haphazard health and safety protections and limited financial rewards—despite the daily cheers of appreciation by their neighbors and politicians.
With the nation relying on them for food and health care during the pandemic, essential workers in coronavirus hot spots had to show up to work from the agricultural fields of Southern California to the medical clinics and coffee shops of Northern California. They have often been taken for granted by the same consumers, patients and customers who are now cheering their valor.
The government orders posed a frightening dilemma for many of them. They could choose to stay safe but lose their incomes. Or they could risk their health by working at low-paying jobs. Most affected by the new rules are women and people of color who make up the majority of the essential workforce in health care, agriculture and food.
For years before COVID-19 put a spotlight on their jobs, they have been ignored by the same government that now requires them to be on the pandemic’s front lines. Employers that now rely on them to keep their businesses alive didn’t pay them a living wage.
As California confronts a global pandemic, their stories spotlight the risks posed by their working conditions and inadequate wages for their crucial work.
(Since these workers do not have protected-whistleblower status or have permission to speak to the media, they would risk losing their jobs if they were identified. Therefore, we are allowing them to tell their stories using pseudonyms.)
On the frontlines, without protective gear
Newsom’s order mandating critical businesses to continue operations drew broad support from financial markets and employers. However, according to these three essential workers, the rollout of equally mandated PPE, and health and safety guidelines has been limited and haphazard.
Justo, the Starbucks barista, put it this way: “We’re subjects in an experiment. They don’t have real solutions to prevent infections.”
Justo described the working conditions at the Park & Naglee Starbucks in San José where he works: “We barely got protective Plexiglas shielding on May 17, and it wasn’t even quickly installed when it finally arrived because nobody knew how to set it up. We’re running out of gloves, which are critical for baristas taking orders and handing out drinks. Sanitizers, masks and other required PPE are currently back-ordered. The irony is that we are the test store to define best practices for other Starbucks café stores in San Jose, to open safely.”
Huerta, a Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, picks crops in Oxnard. He works for Laguna Farms, a partner of Reiter affiliated companies. “I’m risking my life to help bring food to American tables during the COVID pandemic,” he said. Although he’s required to work during the SIP order, the federal government has not granted him a work permit.
Farm workers risk not only being infected with COVID-19 but also exposing their families. “I want to be able to keep my family safe,” Huerta said, “I’m afraid I’ll bring the virus home, to my family, to my children.”
Huerta’s employer does provide masks, hand sanitizer and instructions on physical distancing during lunch and breaks to his 35- to 40-person crew. Maintaining proper physical distancing during the actual work is more difficult, since it is done in proximity to others. The weather is usually hot, which makes wearing a mask burdensome.
According to Juvenal Solano, farm worker community organizer with Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), “very few companies really comply with the safety rules.” MICOP provides education, training and advocacy to the Mixtec immigrant community, estimated at 20,000 people, in Ventura County.
“Strawberry pickers have to work very close to one another, only about three feet apart,” Solano said. “In the companies that take care of workers, they work on alternate rows. But it’s very rare for a company to do that, or to comply with all health and safety requirements.”
“About a month ago, we filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA (the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration) on behalf of some farm workers because of sanitation issues in the bathrooms at their job site,” Solano added. Cal/OSHA is responsible for enforcing workplace health and safety laws in California. The agency simply sent a form letter to the employer. “The employer’s response was to deny any issues existed, so we had to push for a site inspection,” Solano said. “And even when Cal/OSHA agreed, it alerted the employer in advance, so it could address the issue ahead of time and avoid any penalties.”
Garrett Brown, who retired from Cal/OSHA in 2014 after 18 years as a field compliance officer in the Oakland District Office said, “Under California law, it’s illegal for Cal/OSHA inspectors to inform an employer in advance of an on-site inspection.”
Brown said also, “Since March, Cal/OSHA’s 190 inspectors have worked from home because of COVID virus concerns and have not done site inspections except for a handful of very rare cases. Letters have gone out to employers and letters come back. In my experience, employers lie all the time about this stuff, but the only way you can verify the violation and issue a citation is to go onsite. At this point Cal/OSHA has a backlog of more than 2,000 complaints.
“We have a situation today where there is little or no protection by Cal/OSHA for workers on the job. Since COVID’s impact is widely disproportionate on African-American and Latino workers, these workers are worse off without the protections from Cal/OSHA and are much more exposed and much more vulnerable to potentially life-threatening disease,” Brown added in regard to Cal/OSHA’s work-from-home protocols and long-term understaffing, “currently with a 20% vacancy of fully funded inspector positions.”
Huerta’s employer did respond to queries about its safety practices in time for publication.
For Wald, the risks in her job come from practicing street medicine, providing care for homeless people.
“Doing street medicine, you can’t wear full PPE because trust is a major factor,” she said. “If you can’t establish trust with people, you may as well not be there. I wear a mask, and that’s it.” She also signed up to do COVID-19 testing to supplement her household’s reduced earnings. Her regular job is in community clinic healthcare. She and her family worry about the risks. “My family has been pretty clear they don’t want to be around me,” she said, “They’re totally right and it’s heartbreaking.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, she was told at her street medicine job that she should reuse her gown and save her single-use masks. “It turned out not to be necessary,” she remembered. “I actually saved masks with the idea that if in a month or two we didn’t have PPE, I’d be glad to have those, but I stopped doing that because we have plenty.” For her new COVID-19 testing job, she’s provided with full PPE and follows very strict protocols.
And a survey by the union National Nurses United found that 87% of nurses reported having to reuse single-use disposable respirators or masks with COVID-19 patients. The survey included 23,000 nurses from 50 states plus Washington D.C. and four territories. “The richest country in the world will call nurses heroes without even bothering to invest in mass-producing N95 respirators and other equipment,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN.
Wald’s regular community clinic patients must consult with her by phone since the clinic is closed. “If something really urgent has to be done in person,” she said, “they’re referred to another clinic in the medical consortium.”
“Some things you can do well through telemedicine, sometimes even a little better because it’s convenient for the patient.” Wald said. “With my diabetes patients, if I’m trying to titrate (continuously measure and adjust) their insulin and get the right dose, it’s really nice to be able to talk to them for 10 minutes once a week.”
Other chronic conditions need more comprehensive in-person care, however. “Initially a lot people dealt with their chronic disease kind of on their own,” she said, “but now we have more patients who absolutely need in-person visits and are having to wait weeks.”
Telephone appointments generate more revenue than in-person appointments for the clinic, and senior leadership is prioritizing telemedicine to meet funding requirements. “We’ve been told we should expect to be doing a fair amount of it through the rest of the year,” she said.
Daily cheers, but nothing extra in the paycheck
Despite loud expressions of appreciation, financial incentives for active essential workers during the pandemic have been limited and temporary. Newsom called them “our unsung heroes.” Yet neither federal nor state laws require that companies provide hazard pay, and many companies that did ended their hazard pay in May.
“I have not received hazard pay or even health care,” Huerta said. “Being called a hero is a gesture without real impact.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, less than half of all farmworkers and only 24% of undocumented farmworkers have health insurance.
Huerta also lives in constant fear of deportation. “What we need more than anything is amnesty,” he said. “Legalization of our residency or at least a green card, a legal work permit, so we can work without the fear that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will apprehend us at work, at home, at the store, in the street.”
Solano says he’s seen a COVID-19 bonus in some workers’ pay stubs. “But to me and to them it’s a joke,” he said. “It’s about $10 to $11 per week, less than $2 per day. It’s nothing compared to the risks they’re taking for themselves and their families.” Undocumented workers were left out of all the relief packages provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act,“ even though they pay taxes too. They were deeply disappointed, but they still get up at 4 in the morning to go to work every day,” Solano said.
The CARES Act provides documented taxpayers with stimulus checks of up to $1,200 for individuals or $2,400 for married couples and up to $500 for each qualifying child. To make up for their exclusion, California launched on May 18 the Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants Project, which provides only a one-time grant of $500 in direct assistance to undocumented workers 19 and older who have experienced hardship due to COVID-19, with a maximum of $1,000 in assistance per household.
Starbucks CEO and President Kevin Johnson told its employees and customers in a letter published on May 4, “At Starbucks, (my) inspiration has come from our partners [Starbucks calls its workers ‘partners’], whose dedication and ability to adapt leaves me feeling proud every day.”
The partners’ ability to adapt, however, meant that “If we need a mask, we make it out of coffee filters. That’s a ridiculous way to outfit a hero worker,” Justo countered. “I’m there not because I’m trying to be a hero. I’m there trying to make a living, taking risks while opening up the store, interacting with customers.”
As a minimum-wage worker, Justo lives paycheck to paycheck. Starbucks paid him and his co-workers $3 per hour extra in hazard pay only from March 21 through May 31, even though employees continue to be exposed to the virus and to “increasingly frustrated customers because of the safety protocols we need to follow with every interaction,” he said.
Wald practices street medicine not only because of a deep sense of social commitment but also because it’s an economic necessity since her partner’s small business, “has gone way down.” It is the riskiest of the three jobs she now has. “I feel really grateful that I have a job, and I’ve been able to increase my hours,” she said.
“I’m not getting hazard pay and no one in the clinic is. And as it’s always the case, I’m not getting overtime for the hours I work above my normal hours, which is rampant in health care,” she added. Reflecting on the impact the pandemic has had on her and her peers, she said, “My one hope is that maybe people in a community clinic setting will realize they will benefit from having a union.”
Easily forgotten but not deterred
Whether essential workers can improve their working conditions for the long term depends in part on how well they organize and how long they can attract public support. Current economic and labor laws and practices render essential workers easily forgotten and their exposure to a deadly virus widely acceptable.
Corporations try to prevent their employees from organizing through human resources departments that seek to deter employees from making claims for better wages or safer working conditions, or from joining a union.
Essential workers feel they must work during the COVID-19 pandemic because they fear retaliation, loss of benefits or even deportation. Companies exploit those fears through unfair labor policies and practices that help their bottom lines.
People of color, women and those without higher education bear the brunt. According to a May 19 report by the Economic Policy institute, a Washington, D.C. group advocating progressive economic policies, 50% of essential workers in food and agriculture are people of color, 76% in healthcare are women and nearly 70% across all sectors have no college degree.
And according to June 25 figures from the California Department of Public Health, non-whites account for 67.2% of COVID-19-related deaths in the state.
National sentiment can shift dramatically, however. The impact of the Black Lives Matter peaceful protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, happening even during the pandemic crisis, proves that showing up and raising people’s collective voices can make a difference. Coordinated pressure can change systemic inequalities.
The general public, who safely order groceries and services on apps, and white collar professionals who work in the safety of their home can become allies of essential workers, calling for better working conditions and compensation.
Huerta said that otherwise, 10 years from now he will have to tell his small children, “How sad it was that during the pandemic, we had to risk our lives to improve their lives. That will be my legacy to them.”