As the Virus Rampages through Washington, Essential Workers Nationwide Are Paying the Price

October 9, 2020 | 3:51 pm
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Derrick Z. Jackson

On October 6, the Roll Call news service reported that 123 employees and contractors who maintain, clean, protect, and restore the offices, buildings, and grounds of Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court have now tested positive for the coronavirus. This news came days after The New York Times reported that two housekeepers in the White House tested positive.

Beyond the headlines about the First Family and the host of White House officials, senators, and military officials now testing positive for COVID-19, we should not forget that essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic continue to pay the biggest price for a national response to the crisis that verges on fratricidal.

One example: on the same day Roll Call published its story about infected legislative branch workers, the Colorado-based Greeley Tribune reported that two whistleblowers filed affidavits testifying to how JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, pressured workers to come to its Greeley, Colorado plant last spring even if they were sick with possible COVID-19 symptoms. The company dismissed the claims, but the Midwestern Center for Investigative Reporting says that, as of October, at least 41,000 positive tests for coronavirus have been reported connected to meatpacking facilities across 27 states, resulting in nearly 200 deaths.

One of the whistleblowers, Sarah Jean-Buck, told the Tribune that the company “incentivized workers to lie about symptoms so they would work while sick and get paid. Moreover, JBS encouraged us to not diagnose anyone with the virus so that they could work . . . their actions not only jeopardized their own employees, but the health of the entire community during the height of the pandemic in Colorado.”

Now nearly nine months into the pandemic, essential workers in the United States continue to face relentless and tragic pressures, most notably from federal and state leaders who dismiss the science on COVID-19, and from bosses who mock the use of masks, skirt or ignore recommended safety protocols, and skimp on protective equipment.

COVID-19 and frontline occupations

Last month, the nation’s largest union for registered nurses, National Nurses United, published a report estimating that more than 200 RNs and more than 1,700 health care workers have died from the coronavirus. 58 percent of nurses who have died from COVID-19 are of color, even though less than a quarter (24 percent) of the nation’s registered nurses are of color. “We cannot allow the more than 1,700 deaths, many of them avoidable, to be swept under the rug, and vanished from our collective memory by the health care industry,” the report said.

That report came on the heels of a study by researchers at the University of Utah that found a strong correlation between the massive racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths and systemic employment disparities that disproportionately channel people of color into essential worker occupations that expose them to the virus. The occupations include transportation and material moving, health care support, food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, personal care, office support, security, production, and social services.

For instance, in Wisconsin Black people make up just six percent of the state’s population but, in the first massive wave of the pandemic in the spring, they accounted for 36 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. African Americans are significantly overrepresented in frontline occupations, such as public transit, cleaning services, health care, childcare, and social services.

Nationally, Black people make up 13 percent of the population, but 26 percent of public transit workers, 19 percent of childcare and social service workers, and 18 percent of trucking, warehouse and postal workers. Latinx make up 17 percent of the population but 40 percent of building cleaning service workers. People of color account for 61 percent of meatpackers yet they suffered 87 percent of the industry’s COVID-19 infections according to a July report by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

“Existing structural injustices will continue to shape racial disparities in this pandemic if essential workers are treated as expendable, and unless companies and governmental leaders prioritize workplace safety and protection as a matter of public health,” the Utah researchers concluded. “A central moral dilemma of the COVID‐19 pandemic revolves around ‘restarting America’ to save the economy. We suggest that policymakers must first recognize the economic harms that structural racism has caused for Black families across the country.”

Virus spreads, racial disparities persist

As of this week in the United States, 44 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are either trending poorly toward safe re-openings or are experiencing uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, according to October 8 nonpartisan tracking by Similarly, on October 9, The New York Times listed only nine states where the number of new cases are at low levels and staying low. Nonetheless, many states and cities continue to push safety to the edge by relaxing social distancing rules in schools, restaurants, and sports venues.

As a result, Black and Latinx people remain on edge and at the tip of the spear of re-openings. Despite national protests over systemic racism, the Black death rate from COVID-19 remains more than double the white death rate, Latinx and Indigenous death rates are both roughly 50 percent higher than the white death rate, and governors of the most aggressive states continue to remain silent about the disproportionate ability of white workers to work from home via the Internet. Indeed, the APM Research Lab estimates that if Black people were dying at the same rate as white people, nearly 21,000 Black people would still be alive today.

Angry, frustrated, scared

After 213,000 deaths (and counting) in the United States, a huge percentage of the nation’s essential workers still work in fear of contracting the virus—from meatpackers and bus drivers to maintenance workers in the halls of the Senate and the House and housekeepers and butlers in the White House.

Charles Allen, whose father, the late Eugene Allen served the families of eight US presidents and was featured in the movie “The Butler,” and whose uncle, John Johnson, was also a White House butler, told the Washington Post this month that if his father and uncle were still working, he would tell them, “You need to get the hell up out of there.”

Sam Kass, personal chef to Barack and Michelle Obama during much of their stay in the White House, told the Post that he knows the current White House service staff are “scared.” A staff of roughly 90 butlers, housekeepers, valets, and cooks attend to the First Family. Most are Black and brown. Kass said that staff, most of whom learn to do their jobs as inconspicuously as possible, are torn between protecting their families and their own lives and “balancing their responsibilities to their country.”

In a recent and moving commentary in Government Executive, Christina Suthammanont wrote about how her husband Chai died of COVID-19 in May after likely being infected by a sick co-worker in the kitchen of a child-development center at the Quantico Marine Corps base. She said workers at the time were not provided personal protective equipment, received no clear guidance on social distancing, and had pay incentives that encouraged people to come to work sick and hide their symptoms.

“I still mourn the death of my beloved Chai; he was my everything,” Christina wrote. “I am also increasingly angry and frustrated that others continue to be put at risk unnecessarily. As individuals, we all can adhere to basic CDC guidelines, but federal agencies must take a coordinated and responsible approach to informing their workers of workplace safety protocols and protective measures the agency will implement to protect workers.”

Thus far, no coordinated or responsible approach has come from Washington. Worse, the Washington Post reported on October 8 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating only one out of every five claims of workplace retaliation by employees who attempt to raise COVID safety concerns. Citing a new report by the National Employment Law Project, the Post wrote that 54 percent of 1,744 whistleblower complaints during the pandemic have been dismissed or closed without investigation. Only two percent of cases were settled, and the law project said it was unclear whether even those cases were settled in a “manner beneficial to the workers” as OSHA keeps outcomes under wraps.

That report comes two months after the Department of Labor’s Inspector General criticized OSHA for not filling vacancies on its whistleblower investigative staff to handle the soaring volume of coronavirus-related complaints. The Inspector General said, “When OSHA fails to respond in a timely manner, it could leave workers to suffer emotionally and financially.”

That is of course an understatement. When OSHA and the government fail the workers during the coronavirus crisis, that failure can leave workers and family members dead.

About the author

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.