Essential workers continue services amid COVID-19 pandemic

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When thinking of essential jobs, people scarcely picture grocery store employees, delivery drivers and gas station attendants, but for the last few weeks, they have been working to ensure communities have the goods and services they need.

Many jobs in businesses now being considered essential are often taken for granted under regular circumstances, according to Charlotte Chang, coordinator of research to practice and evaluation at UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program. She added that the need for retail and service workers to continue showing up to work during the COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, pandemic has highlighted the important role these jobs play in society.

“That many of the jobs so critical now are often seen by people as ‘less skilled’ because they do not require higher levels of formal educational training is indicative of the undervaluing of these essential workers who literally take care of our families,” Chang said in an email.

In the city of Berkeley’s March 16 shelter-in-place order, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, the city’s public health officer, identified more than 20 business types under the “essential businesses” category, which are permitted to continue operating during the order. The list includes health care services, grocery stores, farms and child care services, among others.

In addition to first responders and health care workers, those in retail businesses such as grocery stores are at particularly high risk because they are in close contact with the public throughout their shifts, and stores have become increasingly crowded in recent weeks, Chang said.

“Many workers are not getting what they need,” Chang alleged in the email. “Amazon workers were striking because of inadequate cleaning of the facilities, and instacart workers have complained, among other things, that hand sanitizer is not being made available.”

Whole Foods employees also participated in a walkout Tuesday amid calls for better safety practices and supplies to keep them better protected while working through the pandemic.

A number of the jobs considered to be essential are often seen as low-skilled occupations, and workers in these positions contend with low wages, lack of benefits and job insecurity. According to Chang, food insecurity is a known challenge for restaurant and agricultural workers and the need for benefits, including paid sick leave and workplace safety protections, is now more obvious than ever.

Additionally, she added, the misclassification of employees as private contractors and “temporary” workers, which excludes many from certain labor protections, were all problems for some workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

“I hope this will be a turning point for all communities,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn in an email. “Where the hard work of our first responders, healthcare workers, restaurant and transit workers, and all other essential workers, will be more clearly seen and appreciated – in tangible ways, such as higher wages and access to sick leave, medical care and other important benefits and protections.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the important role that essential workers have in our day-to-day lives, Hahn added.

According to Chang, there are important policies and systems that can make a difference in mitigating the risk faced by essential workers. Employers can promote better social distancing practices, provide supplies and equipment and support their employees’ needs.

“It is impossible to know what will come in the wake of this crisis, but the inequities and the lack of basic benefits and protections of a decent job that are so widespread are certainly being exposed,” Chang said in the email. “Hopefully that presents an opportunity for reframing and organizing for a more justice-oriented understanding of work.”

Contact Jacob Souza at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.