Essential, Not Sacrificial

Essential, Not Sacrificial

“Politics is about the participation and engagement of the wider citizenry—to miss that point would doom us to irrelevance.”  – David Blunkett

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., I like so many others, have lived with a COVID-19 target on my back—I am a seventy-year-old African American with a heart condition who is also obese. In other words, I virtually check all the boxes of “high risk.”.

This leaves me filled with gratitude and overwhelming appreciation for everyone who has delivered items to my home while I have remained sheltered in place to enhance my odds of surviving this deadly pandemic. In appreciation of their efforts, I often feel I cannot tip enough, say thank you enough, whenever a delivery person knocks.

Delivery people are all races, young and old and I can often see a fear-tinged uncertainty in their eyes as they back away to a social distance when I answer the door. What must they be thinking about me, I ask myself? ‘Is this person healthy, they must wonder. Am I at a safe enough distance?’ These are certainly things I would wonder were I in their shoes.

Many in my own family are among the legion of those deemed essential employees—working in health care, warehouses, long-haul truckers, cashiers, etc. I pray every day they are following all the rules, doing everything they can to protect themselves and hope those they interact with, are doing the same.

It was commendable, when many companies who historically underpay their employees announced they were providing hazard pay to essential workers. These businesses were acknowledged for this by many media outlets, to the point of almost being celebrated more than the minimum-wage workers themselves who are putting their lives on the line every day. I was sorely disappointed, though not at all surprised to learn the businesses are now changing their tune.

Without fanfare and barely a notice these same companies are now quietly cancelling the hazard pay even as the dangers still exist. In expressing frustration about the sudden change in how frontline employees are being fiscally devalued even as they continue to literally put their lives on the line, secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Local 455, rhetorically asked Fortune Magazine, “How do you go from a hero to zero when there’s still a pandemic out there? What has changed?”

To that I respond, “Nothing, except the businesses’ penchant for greed could no longer be contained.” It might have come down to weighing how much every $2 an hour additional in hazard pay they provided frontline workers was taking away from the corporate bottom line—possibly reducing CEO bonus payments at the end of the year.

Some might argue CEO’s would not dare give themselves a bonus in this weak economy; but we all know there is no end to their boldness—just recall what happened in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.

I am not afraid to call their names and encourage our readers—whenever possible—to patronize other businesses in lieu of these. Afterall, even in the age of COVID-19 we have choices about where we choose to spend our precious dollars. Not surprisingly, Target and Amazon were among the first to announce they were rescinding the bonuses, though certainly they will not be the last. In the coming weeks, expect others to quietly follow suit. 

Frontline workers are among the heroes and sheroes of this pandemic, yet they remain some of the lowest-paid employees in the nation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported retail cashiers nationally, for example, earn a median hourly wage of only $11.37 per hour. 

As corporations race to cut hazard pay, the U.S. House of Representatives took this issue into their own hands late last week and passed the latest version of coronavirus stimulus. It includes a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to boost pay for essential workers across the country by $13 an hour. Right now, however, this appears to be no more than a pipe dream.

Even though there is some bi-partisan support in the Senate with Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney offering a similar proposal which calls for a temporary, $12 per hour raise for low- to middle-income essential workers; and a separate initiative being stewarded by a bi-partisan group of Senators which proposes a 25 percent raise across the board for federal employees who are unable—due to the nature of their work—to maintain proper distancing from others, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he has no intention of entertaining any additional stimulus—for front line workers or anyone else—except of course big businesses.

McConnell is pushing to make corporations harmless of liability should one of their employees contract the virus. He is pushing this on the heels of the president’s waiver of liability for the meatpacking industry. Now, if these employees do not come to work—and in essence, risk their lives—they will no longer be eligible for unemployment benefits.

This leaves workers, most of whom live from pay day to payday, little option. The ultimate question is, under these circumstances, if an employee returns to work and subsequently contracts COVID-19—Will it be considered suicide or murder?

In this instance, is the worker self-accountable for his/her own demise—after all, it was their decision to report to work right? Are we as consumers responsible for continuing to patronize their employers, when those of us who follow the science understand the risks they are being asked to take? Is it the government’s fault because it failed to implement a solution that might have kept them safe? Or, are the corporations to blame for placing the economy over human life. These are ethical questions we must begin to ask ourselves.

Meanwhile, it is once again time to raise our voices and push the Senate to act. Take out your cell phones or open your computers and reach out to California Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein as well as Senate Leader McConnell to demand action on the “Heroes Fund” legislation: 

You can call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and a switchboard operator will connect you directly with the Senate office you request. You can email Senator Feinstein by logging onto https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/e-mail-me; Senator Harris at www.harris.senate.gov/contact; and you can also send an email to Majority Leader McConnell at  www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=contact.

Sure, some of you might say why write or call when it probably will not make a difference. To that I say, we will never know unless we try. Afterall, Fredrick Douglass taught us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

These frontline workers risk their lives everyday for those of us who have the flexibility of staying home or have the absolute need, because we are high risk, to stay at home. If they can risk their lives for our convenience, the very least we can do is make a call or send an email to fight for them.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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