May 06, 2020

Race, Class, Work, and Health

Jpi author photoBy Janis Prince Inniss

Five young men and one woman who look like they’re in their mid-twenties clustered around blue plastic trays and carts. I’ve never seen that sort of cart before, but otherwise it looked like any other day outside of the Walmart I have been going to for the last 19 years. This was bizarre because we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic!

I was blown away by how normal everything looked outside the store—but also horrified. None of the five store employees wore gloves or masks, and none was maintaining any physical distance from the other as they chatted. Personally concerning was when one of the young men approached my car—too close for my comfort—to confirm my name for the grocery pick-up order. What about the 6 feet rule we should maintain between ourselves and others, recommended by the CDC?

My reason for ordering groceries online and then opting to pick them up was to choose the option that would limit my exposure to the COVID-19 virus. In-store shopping was out because of the number of people in the stores and all the touch involved. I nixed delivery of my groceries in lieu of pick-up to spare my bags being touched by one less person.

In my mode of hyper-vigilance, I expected that there would be some special protocols in place for the workers delivering my food to the car. I thought through my behavior at the store: take the car that has a button to pop the trunk from inside and smile and wave from inside the car, windows up!

However, upon arrival, one of the workers approached the driver’s side of the car to ask the name on the order—and to my surprise, he didn’t make any effort to stay 6 feet away. After a few minutes, the same young man returned asking whether we knew of, and were okay with the substitutions that were made to the order—again, not standing any noticeable distance away from the car.

It took a few minutes before the groceries arrived so I had a chance to observe all of the workers bringing out pickup orders. There was nothing in the way they behaved among themselves or in interacting with customers to indicate that we are in the midst of a public health crisis!

As I thought about the Walmart workers, I have been considering this question: Who goes out to work during a pandemic, especially considering that most states have now issued stay at home orders? Many people are now working from home, but those deemed essential in Florida (where I live) can go out to their jobs. Of course, the ability to work from home is industry specific. Obviously and thankfully, those in the medical field are doing battle at the front lines but another category deemed essential are those in the food and agriculture category—and that’s where the Walmart employees fit, along with farmworkers.

Only a couple hours drive away from my home is a hub of migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida. Even if we only consider one product, you’ll see that the town of Immokalee is important with regard to produce: 90 percent of winter-time tomatoes in the U.S. come from farms in that area! I became aware of the area and some of the issues there when I spent a weekend there as part of a faculty service learning project.

The area is infamous for modern-day slavery, and the physical and sexual abuse of migrant farmworkers, but the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an organization that has won many inroads in addressing those problems. They created the Fair Foods Program (FFP), which educates workers about their rights, provides an increase in pay, and has created a council to ensure that new standards are followed. Having been to Immokalee and being given a tour by CIW staff, I can attest to the tight, poor living conditions for many farmworkers in this rural community; we were told that most of the workers live in trailers, several families jammed into each one. At left is a photo of one such trailer that I took on the tour.

In Immokalee, these farm workers—who are mostly Mexican immigrants—are transported to the fields in busses and work under physically harsh conditions; not the way to develop a strong immune system. Their work and home conditions are the kinds in which viruses thrive. How do you work in this industry, and stay six feet apart? And how do you maintain that distance going to and from work and in tight home quarters? It is these concerns that have led a co-founder of the CIW to issue a call in the New York Times for the immediate building of a field hospital and others measures to help to protect these workers during this pandemic.

Data examined by ProPublica indicate that African Americans are contracting and succumbing to COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans. Although it is still early in this pandemic, the examples of these two groups of workers help us begin to understand why this is so. Both groups of workers I described are low-wage unskilled workers; workplace safety for such workers is often hard fought and the current crisis highlights this.

Additionally, many minorities and the poor lack health insurance, which means they live with health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from this coronavirus. Further, the ProPublica report details examples of racism preventing proper medical responses to African Americans seeking care for the virus—which remind me of similar outrages with regard to pain management and heart attacks, for example. Race and class are tightly interwoven in the U.S. so although I discuss two racial minority groups and their work during this pandemic, it is likely that poor whites will also be affected by COVID-19 in ways that middle and upper class whites will not.

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