Thursday, March 19, 2020

My Reflections as Minnesota and Vermont Declare Grocery Clerks Emergency Workers

The people putting their lives on the line right now to serve the rest of us are medical personnel and also grocery store workers and people delivering goods in trucks all over the country. The latter two groups are often significantly underpaid and have few or no benefits, including paid sick leave.

It bothers my conscience tremendously that I live in an almost all-white, affluent neighborhood whose main grocery store, a branch of Kroger, has workers who are mostly African American and economically struggling. Some of the African-American women working as checkout persons at my local Kroger are single mothers raising children and holding down several jobs. As one of these women told me on Monday when we stopped by Kroger to buy some essentials and I told her I hope she can stay safe throughout this pandemic, "I have to work to pay my rent. Will you pay it for me?"

I told her that, yes, if she were in need, I'd find a way to pay her rent. Not sure she believed me, and maybe she has a right to be skeptical, since I am walking in different shoes than hers and it's easy for me to issue platitudes about her safety while she has no choice except to go to work — and I'm able to stay at home and try to keep clear of infection. We have, in fact, given her and other of the African-American women at Kroger who do so much to wait on us as customers gifts of money and items from our grocery cart, so I hope she would know that I will help in a time of need.

But that's really not enough — one single person making one single gift. We so critically need ways as a society to address the needs of these folks working at low salaries and without benefits, keeping things going during this time for the rest of us comfortable people. The companies depending on their labor are, in many cases, raking in big dollars as people hoard and panic-buy. Those big dollars are not passing down to the people doing the labor that produces those dollars. Big grocery companies are kicking and screaming as they are being asked to provide paid sick leave to their workers right now.

The money being made hand over first in a time of misery is going into the pockets of CEOS, board members, and others at the top, while low-paid, no-benefits workers are risking their health and their very lives to keep stores open and functioning — and this is not right. Kudos to the two states who have now classified grocery store workers as emergency workers. That is exactly what they are in this pandemic period. They need our support, gratitude, and advocacy for a change in economic and political systems willing to exploit working people in order to put more money into the pockets of the already filthy rich.

And while I'm on this topic: offices that are refusing to permit workers to work at home — when the kind of work they are doing is easily done via online connections — are also putting their workers at unnecessary risk and also exposing them and others to infection. As Petra Klepac writes in a statement entitled "What we scientists have discovered about how each age group spreads Covid-19,"

What we have found in this data is that adults aged 20-50 make most of their contacts in workplaces. If those of us who can work remotely start doing so now, it will contribute to lowering overall transmission in the population. Another important finding is that people over 65 – who are particularly at risk from severe Covid-19 illness – make over half of their contacts in other settings (not home, school or work), such as shops, restaurants and leisure centres. By avoiding these interactions, people who are most at risk from the new coronavirus could halve their risk of infection.

I hear of Arkansas state offices requiring people to go to work when the kind of work they do can be done at home. I'm reading a lot of social media exchanges about people being required to go in and work in church offices and parish offices, when they're doing work that they could do at home and there's no reason they have to be at a church or in parish offices.

People in charge of these workplaces need to stop acting like little tyrants and let people work long-distance unless it's absolutely necessary that they be on the spot. Putting people at unnecessary risk and causing them to spread infection just to prove that you're a hard-ass managerial type is insane.

And as I finish this posting, my brother texts to tell me that his test for COVID-19 has come back positive. 

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