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The Big Challenge of Being an ‘Essential’ Worker in a Global Pandemic

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Mohamed Darhan, 30, an employee at Sunrise Market in Oakland on April 1, 2020. Darhan said he regularly sanitizes his gloves and the counter, and posts signs reminding customers to keep a distance from each other (and from him) and not to come in the store if they're feeling sick.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Tens of millions of workers in the U.S. with jobs once considered “low skill” — like grocery and drugstore clerks, delivery drivers and in-home care providers — have suddenly been recognized as “essential.”

And with the coronavirus pandemic more than likely to remain a fact of life for months to come, some of these workers are now demanding higher pay and better working conditions.

For decades, many employers of low-wage workers have chipped away at benefits like paid sick time and health care, shifted positions from full- to part-time or contract work and suppressed wages. With the sharp decline of union membership and spike in personal debt, more of these workers have had to take on second and third jobs to survive.

And now on top of all this, they are on the front lines of a global pandemic, one that has exposed their precarious situation, while adding another layer of burden and responsibility.

Employed by businesses considered essential, these workers are putting themselves and their families at risk by continuing to go to work, enabling everyone else to access food and other basic necessities.

Even so, many of the workers KQED has interviewed in recent weeks said their employers have not provided sufficient safety protections or offered adequate additional compensation to account for the health risks.

As Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain put it, “Right now there’s a heightened sense of awareness, thankfully, that our labor is essential, but it’s still not paying like it’s essential, and we're still not being protected like we're essential.”

Before the coronavirus hit, a number of these workers were already struggling to make ends meet.

Among the workers KQED has recently profiled: Lyft and Uber driver Erica Mighetto had been searching for a steady job for three years in Sacramento, and had started sleeping in her car and on friends' couches after being kicked out of her apartment. Alina Martinez, a suite attendant at San Francisco's new Chase Center, was negotiating with her employer for health insurance, which she hasn't had since September. Hotel housekeeper Larrilou Carumba had spent years paying down about $35,000 in credit card debt incurred after a personal disaster, and she was getting ready to finally move with her three kids out of her crowded sister’s house in San Leandro. And in-home health care provider Carnella Marks was being paid just over minimum wage in Chico to feed, nurse, bathe and tend to a patient with severe dementia.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus crisis has been a boon for many employers of low-wage workers. Grocery stores across the country are breaking sales records. App-based delivery services are being flooded with new users. Products are surging through the warehouses of Amazon and Walmart.

To meet rising demand companies are hiring. Instacart alone plans to add 200,000 shoppers. Amazon said it's looking to add 100,000 more workers in its warehouses. Individual grocery chains are adding on thousands and thousands of jobs.

Under pressure from workers, many of these companies are beginning to do things like provide hand sanitizer and let workers wear masks and gloves on the job. Some companies have started to offer hazard pay of an additional dollar or two an hour. Others are adding emergency paid time off for those who end up getting sick.

But some of the workers KQED spoke to said these efforts fall far short, given the level of risk involved. And now, they have more leverage than they've perhaps ever had before, as demand for their services continues to rise.

KQED is keeping a running tab on the conditions of workers in a variety of different sectors who have been thrust onto the front lines of this pandemic. Below, we describe the conditions in some of the most impacted industries in California, links to related stories we've covered and resources for workers or those who want to support them.

Grocery Store Workers

Items piled high at the checkout counter of a Ralph's Supermarket in North Hollywood on March 19, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Until recently, most major grocery store chains were telling workers they could not wear their own masks to work, and in some cases even discouraged wearing gloves. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) has successfully pushed to have those restrictions lifted and helped some workers negotiate hazard pay raises of up to $2 an hour. The union represents some 1.3 million grocery and food service employees, but doesn’t include workers at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and a number of other massive grocery outlets.

This week, workers at Whole Foods called for a nationwide “sickout” to push for higher pay and better working conditions. There have been reports of workers contracting coronavirus at Whole Foods stores in several major cities, including in San Francisco at the Upper Haight Street location. Some Whole Foods employees who are continuing to work during the pandemic are asking for double the current hourly wage for employees, paid leave for all workers who have to stay home or self-quarantine and free coronavirus testing.

Pharmacists and Drugstore Workers

Raymond Cheung, 49, a pharmacist at New Oakland Pharmacy on April 1, 2020. His business has started a delivery system to encourage customers to stay home and keep the number of people in the store to a minimum. He said the store has enough PPE for his employees to use, but currently has no extra stock to sell to customers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many drugstore workers also belong to UFCW and are pushing for similar protections as their counterparts in grocery and retail. The lack of adequate paid time off has been a prime concern, prompting protests at CVS, a petition for Walgreens employees and other labor actions. KQED interviewed a drug store employee who says she and several other coworkers went to work in recent weeks with flu-like symptoms because they could not get any paid sick days. Some workers are asking for major pharmacies to switch to a drive-thru model to limit exposure, and over 100,000 people recently signed a petition demanding that major drugstores like Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS make that change.

Warehouse Workers

Workers pack orders at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy.
Workers pack orders at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After an Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island tested positive for COVID-19 in late March — one of a growing number of Amazon warehouse employees across the country to contract the virus — workers at that location staged a sickout on March 30, demanding safer conditions, protective gear and hazard pay of double their regular salaries.

Amazon recently raised worker pay by $2 an hour through the end of April and increased the rate of overtime pay, among other changes. The group Amazonians United New York City is continuing to gather signatures of workers pushing for improved conditions, and posted their demands here.

Grocery Delivery Workers

Instacart employee Monica Ortega wears gloves while using her cellphone to check orders while picking up groceries for delivery on March 19, 2020 in North Hollywood.
Instacart employee Monica Ortega wears gloves while using her phone to check orders as she picks up groceries for delivery on March 19, 2020 in North Hollywood. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Workers at app-based delivery companies like Instacart, Postmates, and Shipt have also been demanding higher compensation and more protection. Instacart workers on Monday participated in a one-day nationwide strike, demanding hazard pay of an additional $5 per order, sick pay for anyone considered at-risk or needing to self-quarantine and personal protective equipment (PPE) like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.Instacart has said it will provide the protective gear, but has so far not agreed to the additional hazard pay demand. Working with a group called the Gig Workers Collective, Instacart workers posted their demands online. The company also posted its response.

Meanwhile, app-based delivery companies are experiencing a surge in both customers and workers. Instacart has reported higher sales than ever before, and said it was now employing 40 percent more workers than normal, with 250,000 new workers added just in the last week.

Ride-Hail Drivers

Ride-hail driver Erica Mighetto in Oakland on March 10, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Uber and Lyft drivers have seen a decline in ridership and are asking for the state to ensure that they quickly get unemployment benefits. The lack of legal clarity over their employment category has led to many drivers having their claims denied or put on hold. Like Instacart and other grocery delivery workers, they share the burdens and requests of gig workers outlined below. Rideshare Drivers United, an advocacy group, has released a set of driver specific demands.

Restaurant, Bar and Food Service Workers

Roberto Lopes works at Nick's Lighthouse in Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Like many service industry workers, he worries about the decline in revenue at the restaurant and what that means for his job. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With bars and restaurants closed, or only offering takeout orders, many workers in the food service industry have been laid off or had their shifts cut significantly. The maximum unemployment benefit in California is $450 per week, not nearly enough to cover most expenses — especially in places with high rent like the Bay Area.

Some groups, like the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program and Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, are collecting donations to help workers in need, but can only accommodate a tiny fraction of the overwhelming number of suddenly unemployed restaurant workers.


A crew of migrant farmworkers harvest celery just outside Salinas.
A crew of migrant farmworkers harvest celery just outside Salinas. (Alex Hall/KQED)

California’s farm belt pumps out more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts every year. But employers who manage the state’s orchards, packing sheds and fields of row crops are now faced with a dilemma: continue operating and hope their workers don’t get sick or shutter their businesses, forcing their workers (who are eligible) to file for unemployment and putting the country’s food supply at risk.

The Food and Drug Administration is reassuring consumers that there’s no evidence the coronavirus can be transmitted through food or food packaging. Another question, however, is how to keep farmworkers safe from exposure on the job, when social distancing is often difficult or downright impossible.

The United Farm Workers union is calling on employers to extend worker sick pay to 40 hours or more and to eliminate the 90-day waiting period for new employees to be eligible for sick pay, among other changes.

Read more of this story by KQED's Sasha Khokha and Alexandra Hall

In-Home Supportive Service Workers

Low-wage in-home health service providers like Carnella Marks of Chico say they can't get adequate protective gear to safely care for the sick and elderly. (Photo courtesy of Amy Day)

There are roughly half a million in-home supportive service providers in California. According to the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW), a union representing house cleaners and in-home child care providers, the average hourly pay in California is $13.43, and only 9 percent of workers get employee-sponsored health care. Contract negotiations for these workers often drag on for years.

Like health care professionals in hospitals, these workers are not provided with nearly enough PPE. Masks and other protective gear are particularly crucial for them because they typically enter other people's houses, and many of the patients they serve are elderly and immunocompromised. The UDW is asking Gov. Gavin Newsom's office to order a handful of emergency measures, including paid sick leave for workers who need to self quarantine, free treatment for those infected, guaranteed unemployment insurance and increased recruitment of new providers to make sure care is not interrupted for patients.

Domestic Workers

Lourdes Dobarganes, a member of the San Francisco Women's Collective and the California Domestic Workers Coalition on Treasure Island on April 1, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A growing number of domestic workers, including many child care providers and house cleaners, are being asked not to come to work by clients who do not want people entering their homes. Since many of these working arrangements are not officially on the books, it is difficult for these workers to apply for unemployment insurance or effectively advocate for themselves. Many workers are also undocumented, which bars them from applying for state or federal aid.

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Some families that are able to work from home and continue to earn incomes are continuing to pay their domestic workers during the pandemic, even without receiving their services.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance has set up a care fund for these workers, and is accepting donations. It is also working on legislation — SB 1257 — that would allow domestic workers to be covered under Cal/OSHA.

Gig Workers

Individual groups of gig workers and labor advocates in different industries have released specific demands, but the main ask is to gain employee status and have basic job protections. As employees, gig workers would be guaranteed minimum wage and overtime pay, unemployment insurance and workers compensation.

Driver advocacy groups like Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), along with some local leaders are calling for state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Labor Secretary Julie Su to enforce AB 5, a measure that went into effect in January, making it harder for companies to classify their workers as contractors instead of employees.

Undocumented Workers

The $2 trillion federal aid package signed by President Trump last Friday will expand unemployment insurance and send cash to Americans hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn. But immigrants who lack work permits won’t benefit from those provisions.


Even though many undocumented workers collectively pay billions of dollars in taxes, they are excluded from unemployment insurance benefits — which require applicants to show federal work authorization.

More than 125 organizations signed on to a letter sent to Newsom and state legislative leaders to designate emergency funding to support undocumented residents and others who are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

Read more of this story by KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero

'Essential' or 'Unessential'?

Retail chains like GameStop and manufacturers like Tesla have argued that they are essential in a bid to remain open during the pandemic. Both are now closed. Some establishments are more in the gray area, like cafes. Should places like Peet's Coffee and Starbucks stay open if they are mainly serving coffee instead of food?

Workers have been pushing back, urging employers to close so as not to put them in the position of having to stay home and earn no income or go to work and risk getting sick. If stores close or reduce hours, workers can collect unemployment benefits, but not if those businesses remain open.

Workers or customers who believe a store is not essential and should be closed can contact city or county officials, but as yet, there is no state agency handling this issue. Some counties, like Santa Clara County, have set up hotlines. In others, sheriffs' offices are handling complaints.

This is a continually updated post. If you know of resources for specific groups of workers on the frontlines, please send them to sharnett@kqed.org.


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