March 25, 2020

The Working Class and Service Industry Workers: The Front Lines of the COVID-19 Economy

author photoBy Colby King

As the U.S. responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen quick and dramatic changes to how people work and how our economy functions. I wrote a few days ago about one worker, a migrant laborer, was made to dress as a hand sanitizer dispenser at Saudi Aramco. Since then I have seen stories that highlight the risks and challenges of working in the COVID-19 economy, especially for the working class and service industry workers. As Todd Schoepflin wrote here last week, these are the people “who are working to hold the fabric of society together.”

These dilemmas came into focus for me the other night as I talked with my cousin Randy on the phone. Randy lives in Colorado and works multiple jobs part time, as a lighting designer for theaters in Colorado and driving for a rideshare app. When Governor Polis of Colorado banned gatherings of more than 10 people, it had an obvious impact on Randy’s lighting gigs.

But also, like many (all?) of us, he has immunocompromised people in his daily life; while he can continue to drive for a rideshare app, he is concerned about exposure to the virus, whether from riders in the car, or interactions while picking up takeout from restaurants. Does he give up the income to avoid exposure, or does he take the risk? The COVID-19 economy is forcing working class and service industry workers to make these kinds of choices every day.

In education, many schools have moved classes online (you may be reading this essay as part of a newly-online course. If you are, welcome to the Everyday Sociology Blog! Please drop a note in the comments, if that’s you!) But this move to online instruction has meant that many professors, staff, and administrators are working to make do the best that they can for their students, while they are also likely juggling family care and other responsibilities. It’s not easy, but we do have the privilege of being able to do our work remotely. Many do not have this privilege.

In health care, of course, doctors, nurses, and other workers are doing all that they can to keep us all healthy, despite a lack of supplies, and while anticipating a dramatic increase in critically ill patients in the coming weeks. Dr. Stephen Schwartz, a pathologist and longtime professor at the University of Washington, died after contracting COVID-19, highlighting the severity of the diseases and the risks these workers are taking on. Several other hospital workers in the Seattle area have also contracted the virus; while efforts are underway to improve infection-prevention practices, this work remains both essential and dangerous.

While working class and service industry workers may be (unfortunately) accustomed to economic precarity and risks at work, the COVID-19 pandemic has also put them on the front lines of the struggle to stop the spread of the virus while also keeping our economy moving. Many have already lost their jobs, while others are making difficult choices every day, often being forced to balance their financial health with their physical health.

These are incredibly tough dilemmas that the working class and service workers are struggling with it every day. I have seen images of rideshare drivers setting up protective barriers in their cars, but we can imagine that these companies would be concerned about the impression this might give riders in those cars. Janet Burns reported for Forbes on Uber and Lyft drivers facing fear and confusion at work, including a scary story about a rider coughing up blood. Uber and Lyft have suspended shared rides in their services as one step to prevent exposure, but I have not yet seen reporting that either company is proactively providing drivers with sufficient safety materials, including hand sanitizer.

Drivers continues to demand paid sick leave. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai wrote a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo arguing for paid sick leave for taxi and rideshare drivers, stating that:

The current crisis has exposed the arbitrary and purposeless nature of current legal distinctions between employees and independent contractors that allow essential social benefits to some workers but not others.

On Thursday, Janet Burns reported that drivers gathered outside of Uber headquarters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego in protest demanding more support from the company. Veena Dubal, Associate Professor of Law at the University of California, is quoted in this story, making the point that:

People are trying to figure out where to get food, they are desperate, they are considered essential workers right now — they’re actually vectors for the disease — and they have been asking for these protections for years.

With many states closing bars and restaurants for dining in, we have seen many move to takeout and delivery. But most of these now take-out only restaurants won’t be able to make nearly as much revenue as they did before the crisis and are likely to struggle substantially. Many are concerned about the safety of takeout and delivery food. Jenny G. Zhang at Eater outlined some strategies for minimizing risks while still supporting local businesses. She also noted some of the steps that companies, including Postmates and Uber Eats are taking to improve safety and support workers. Door Dash, for example, said:

…it would provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for couriers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are quarantined by public health authorities, with the stipulation that those workers must have been active on DoorDash for at least 60 days, and must have completed at least 30 deliveries in the last 30 days. The company also said it would distribute hand sanitizer and gloves to workers in affected areas. In addition, the company said “independent” restaurants could join the platform and pay zero commissions for 30 days, that existing restaurant partners wouldn’t have to pay commission fees on pick-up orders, and that there would be “additional commission reductions for eligible merchants.

Many people have headed to grocery stores to stock up. And so, grocery workers, have had to come to terms with risks and challenges they may have never anticipated in their work. Vox is collecting stories from service industry workers in the US whose jobs have been affected by the outbreak. You can share your experiences there, too, through this link. One Vox story written by Luke Winkie  profiled Chris, a grocery store worker in the Pacific Northwest, who took a temporary leave of absence, and foregoing income, out of her concerns about contracting the virus.

On Tuesday in Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz classified grocery store workers, including “store clerks, stockers, food preparation personnel, cleaning staff and deli staff at grocery stores,” as emergency personnel. Adding these workers to the state’s "Emergency Tier 2" means that, among other things, those workers with school-age children are now entitled to free care provided by school districts.

As we acclimate to this new economic context, we’ve seen individuals stepping in to help others. Former President Barack Obama tweeted how writers Roxane Gay and Shea Serrano are giving directly to people in need. Shea Serrano started his charitable giving with a tweet in which he directed an expletive at the virus and then encouraged followers on Twitter to send their bill and their Venmo and he’d help them pay the bill.

There are ongoing policy discussions in Congress about how best to support people, especially those like my cousin Randy in working class and service industry jobs who are making tough decisions every day. Some have called for direct payments to the people who need it most, while others have expressed reservations about this kind of plan. Let’s hope they find a way to support those who need it most. There’s a detailed policy paper from Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute that argues that we must respond quickly and in multiple ways to this pandemic (here’s the link to that in PDF). The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more than 2-million workers worldwide, offers a brief set of 10 steps we can all take to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and OSHA has provided guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19. And, as always, check out the CDC’s guide on handwashing.

My cousin Randy has been reaching out to other drivers and talking with friends and family about the choices he has to make. Has your work been impacted by the pandemic? Do you work in one of these industries? How are you adjusting to the COVID-19 economy, and how are you applying your sociological imagination in making sense of the disruptions?


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