Overworked, Falling Ill and Going Broke—Healthcare Workers to Supermarket Clerks Are Being Pushed Beyond Their Limits
Low-paid women and people of color across the country, who were in dire economic straits long before the coronavirus crisis, are being pushed to the absolute brink. These marginalized workers are now essential foot soldiers on the front lines of the global pandemic, taking great risks for little reward.
For the last couple of weeks, Candice Martinez, who cleans and sterilizes rooms at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, has been working 12- and 16-hour days, taking on extra shifts to make up for the medical center’s short staffing.
Privacy regulations prevent workers whose job is to sterilize rooms from knowing much about the people they’re cleaning up after. Only haphazardly are signs placed on doors meant to indicate what kinds of Personal Protection Equipment [PPE] are required upon entering. Martinez never really knows what she’s walking into.
‘Every morning is waking up and realizing I still have symptoms and wondering if it’s going to get worse.’
Now Martinez is isolated at home after falling ill and testing positive for COVID-19.
“Every morning is waking up and realizing I still have symptoms and wondering if it’s going to get worse,” Martinez recently told reporters during a telephone press conference arranged by the Service Employees International Union.
Those scarce N95 masks — the ones that block 95% of tiny airborne particles as small 0.3 microns — are supposed to be essential pieces of PPE for hospital staffers and other frontline workers confronting COVID-19 head-on.
Martinez says she never got one on the job.
She said personal protection equipment or PPE “is not always offered to us —[administrators] hold onto those masks if they have them,” she added.
Hospitals are now quickly turning into “death traps,” according to Kim Smith, a Northwestern patient care technician.
Personal care technicians “are being told to return to work even though they were possibly exposed,” Smith told reporters during the same teleconference. “Nurses are paid three- to four-times the hourly rate. You have offered us nothing. Our lives are just as important. Nobody chose this field to lose their life — they chose it to improve life.”
“Are hospitals evil?” Smith said. “I think they forgot what they were made for. I think they forgot about the people whom they service. I think they forgot about the communities that help them thrive. So, when we go back and say we want a union – we need a union. It’s the only way to get our voices heard!”
Wellington Thomas, an emergency room tech at Chicago’s Loretto Hospital, said his is among the first faces seen by people seeking emergency room care. Colleagues are afraid to come into work now because PPE is not available or hard to come by — and communication between administrators and staff is poor.
“Workers are in the dark about sick patients,” Thomas said, adding that the virus “is spreading like a wildfire through the hospital. It’s moving around everywhere. It’s not isolated. Leaders are not communicating.”
Fear of Job Loss
Connecticut rest stop workers along I-95 are afraid of contracting COVID-19, too — but many are also too afraid to stay home even if they have symptoms for fear of losing their jobs. Some have already been terminated after speaking out against poor training, reduced shifts, lack of paid sick days and insufficient PPE.
Until last week, Mario Franco was the night manager at a northbound McDonald’s rest stop in Darien. He’d been on the job for more than 25 years, 20 of those years working alongside his late wife who died four years ago, after passing out and hitting her head in the backroom of the store on a “busy, hot summer day.”
“McDonald’s only paid for the headstone on her grave — nothing more,” Franco said during another teleconference with frontline workers.
The latest stimulus package, which extends a one-time payment of up to $1,200 to those earning under $75,000 payment, gifted Corporate America hundreds of billions of dollars to ride out the coronavirus crisis. The windfall hasn’t stopped fast food chains along I-95 from terminating low-wage earners in the midst of a global pandemic, however.
Franco was abruptly fired along with the entire night crew.
“Management did not give us an opportunity to move shifts or giving us at least a day of work — they did not respect our dedication and experience,” he added.
Andrea Hernandez worked at the Darien rest stop for three years — a period of time where she said she never saw a sick day or medical leave. When she gave birth last fall, Hernandez said she had to use her vacation days just to have some paid time off with her newborn. According to Hernandez, the only PPE she and her co-workers have received during the pandemic are “the same gloves we always used in the kitchen.”
“The coronavirus is causing a tremendous crisis around the world, but the problems it’s causing at McDonald’s isn’t new — just more dangerous,” she said via teleconference.
Ascha Porter is a mother of two. She lost her job at a southbound Subway rest stop in Fairfield last week.
“These corporations are getting government relief and they can support us through this time — but they’re not,” she recently told reporters via teleconference. “I’m worried about the next time I have to go grocery shopping or pay a bill. I understand our nation didn’t have a plan [to confront the pandemic], but something should be done. Give us our basic rights — [corporations] have the money — they can afford it.”
“Where is the relief” for ordinary workers, she asked. “We’re stuck in a loop right now.”
Arcadio Mejia, a certified nursing assistant at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, is one of the 400,000 Temporary Protected Status [TPS] holders, the majority of them living in the United States for more than 20 years. They could face deportation in January should the Trump administration succeed in terminating that program.
Mejia emigrated from El Salvador and has been on the job for 12 years. He worries about what will happen should he lose his Temporary Protected Status. He also fears his job caring for patients has exposed him to COVID-19, yet he can’t get tested.
Exposed But Still Working
“I was exposed to a COVID-19 patient and I’m still working,” he told me this week. “I asked my clinical coordinator and they told me if I don’t have any symptoms, they’re not going to do a test.”
That means that if Mejia is infected, he could be passing the virus on to others in the hospital, both patients being treated for other ailments, their visitors and healthcare professionals
After working extra hours at the hospital during the coronavirus outbreak, Mejia wonders why he also has to fear being deported in January.
“I have given so much to this country and the government makes me feel like a criminal,” he added. “Why is Trump continuing to take away my rights despite being a good citizen?”
Rena Rodriquez was a physician in her home country of El Salvador and now works as a health educator in North Carolina to support herself and two children. She, too, is experiencing the incredible stress of working without proper PPE and possibly being deported.
“I’m here to serve, I’m here to help the United States,” Rodriquez recently told reporters during an emergency teleconference with TPS holders. “We are exposing ourselves in this situation, we know about the risk — but we are still helping.”
Greg Kelley is the first African American to lead SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri & Kansas, — the largest local union in the Midwest. Indeed, he told me, COVID-19 is disproportionately pushing Black and Latino workers “to the brink.”
“Lower-wage workers historically have not been considered,” Kelley added. “[They have been] disregarded in a way that we, as a society, cannot allow to continue.”
But continue it does, with no shortage of elected officials wagging their fingers at Corporate America and urging them to do the right thing for workers.
Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey sent a stern missive to Vice President Mike Pence and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, imploring the federal government to “ensure that all frontline workers are valued and protected.”
Featured image: COVID-19 testing in Minnesota. (Fairview Health Services)