Sarah Jaffe, with co-journalist Michelle Chan, interviews US workers of all stripes for their podcast “Belabored” for Dissent Magazine. The following interviews are excerpts from their series on COVID-19 stories, republished with permission. For the full interviews, more workers’ stories, and the podcast, visit here.
Farmworkers need Field Hospitals
Farmworkers in the fields are some of the most important workers in the U.S. food supply chain, yet they do their work completely isolated from most of the country. Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have done much in recent years to get the stories of farmworkers in front of the people who buy the produce they pick, and they are now organizing to make demands for safer conditions.
Oscar Otzoy is one of those farmworkers, still picking produce in Florida as the pandemic continues to spread and organizing with the coalition for better conditions.
Otzoy said through a translator:
Farm workers are continuing to go out into the field and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we all eat. And even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing that workers have no choice but to continue working, because they’re considered part of the essential workforce. . . . What we’re seeing is that, as part of the organization, the coalition, we’re able to educate workers about the risks that take place; we’ve worked with various agencies to get handwashing stations around town, where workers can wash their hands, and we’re suggesting people stand about six feet apart from each other whenever they can in the community. But the reality is, the protections are far less when workers are going into the fields.
One of the hardest parts, he said, is that the workers’ living conditions make self-isolation impossible.
We live up to twelve or more in a trailer, and if someone is sick, that means that the virus is going to be spreading really quickly throughout the farm worker community. And so we’ve been making the call for state and local officials to protect the health of farm workers, and there’s a petition going around right now, calling on the governor to set up a field hospital here in Immokalee where workers can isolate and be treated if they are positive with COVID-19.
The petition also calls for agricultural employers to be required to provide functioning personal protective equipment for the workers, particularly masks, to ensure comprehensive and free testing for workers and to allocate public funds to economic relief.
“Please Stay Safe”
Before the coronavirus had even hit West Virginia, the Kroger where Courtney Meadows has worked for nearly ten years saw a big jump in business. “I was on register one day, and it was literally a sea of people,” she said. “Every one of our registers were open, self-checkouts were backed up, and it was literally just one person after another after another. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“When you’ve worked as long as I have in the grocery store, you know a lot of your customers,” Meadows said. “Some of them were just buying their normal things, but then you see them stock up on canned goods, that was a big one. And really just trying to find hand sanitizer and stuff of that nature. The biggest thing, of course, is the toilet paper.”
The store has slowed down a lot since then, she said, but now she sees people who come out just to get out of the house. “It’s one of those things that’s . . . please stay home. Please do not come out if you do not need to come out.”
Meadows has an extra reason to be cautious: she’s scheduled for surgery in two weeks. She explained:
Today, before I left work, I have a sanitizing spray that I sprayed my clothes down with. Sprayed my clothes, my shoes, we wear rubber gloves at work, some people who have had access to a face mask are wearing them, we have markers up all over the place telling you [to stay] six feet apart.
Our registers are marked off. Our deli, bakery is marked off, telling people to please wait behind the line while they pick their meat. We have hand sanitizer on every single register. We get relieved every thirty minutes to go wash our hands. We have someone who literally stays out in the lobby where the shopping carts are, and every shopping cart gets sanitized. . . . We have people going through the whole store, sanitizing anything anybody could touch. The handles on the freezers, the milk, coolers, anything and everything that can be touched, it’s getting sanitized.
She’s taking every precaution she can. “I make sure I don’t touch my face, or any time I get to punch out for a break or lunch, we have sanitizing wipes at our time clocks, and we wipe them down. . . . I wash my hands constantly—just being extra cautious. I worry more about my coworkers. I’m not scared. I’m more worried about people who are elderly and who have underlying conditions.”
That, too, is close to home—her mother and stepfather both have health issues that make them more susceptible to the virus. That means her mother won’t be able to be with her when she gets her surgery.
But for now she remains on the job five days a week, saying:
If they give me more I work more. I just want to make sure that my customers are taken care of … People who truly know me will tell you I’m a very positive person. I will find the positive in every situation. It makes no difference how bad it is. If someone comes through and they’re talking about it, I say an encouraging word to them. I will tell them: everything’s going to be OK. Some people will see so much gloom and doom that if I can be the only positive thing that they see, that’s what I choose to do. And my customers look at me and they say, ‘Please stay safe.’ And they are so appreciative of us. So appreciative.
On the Picket Line for Ventilators
The news that workers at General Electric (GE) in Massachusetts had launched a protest—first reported, incorrectly, as a strike—on March 30, demanding that they be allowed to use the company’s idled manufacturing facilities to make desperately needed ventilators rocketed around the internet.
The history of workers’ demands to control the production process and have influence over what was produced has been mostly forgotten, but is slowly coming back into public consciousness. Since then the workers have continued to stage informational pickets, immaculately socially distanced, to make their demands heard.
Adam Kaszynski is one of those workers, a member of IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn, MA. He said that the conversation began among his coworkers around March 24.
There’s been deindustrialization happening . . . and we’ve been told, ‘It’s inevitable, it’s trade, it’s competition.’ We’ve seen our plant go from thousands and thousands of people and we are down to about 1,200 members,” he said. “You used to not be able to park in the plant. Now, half the thing is a parking lot. There are idle buildings and some idle capacity. We have plants all over the country like that.
[The union has been] fighting to keep union jobs and manufacturing jobs in the United States for as long as we’ve been here. Right now, there’s an opportunity for these lifesaving ventilators and where there’s skilled manufacturing workers and idle capacity. It feels like a perfect fit.
Kaszynski started working as a machinist at the Lynn plant in 2011. He’s seen jobs lost, though the numbers have not been as drastic as in some places, and watched buildings get torn down.
But he’s confident that the workers could turn around very quickly and start making lifesaving equipment:
Manufacturing is what workers in these facilities do. It would be totally possible for GE to make the kinds of investments in manufacturing in these plants that would make ventilator production possible. Where there is idle capacity on machines right now, you could start making metal parts for ventilators within twenty-four hours.
As far as the assembly and the electronics and everything, that could take a little bit more time, but there is a huge demand for these things and there are layoffs happening. There is no reason why engineers cannot say, “Here are the programs,” or “Here are the blueprints for the parts that we need in these ventilators,” and we could get up and running very quickly on at least the metal components.
I think GE posted $95 billion in revenue last year, so anything is possible. The way that I look at it is that in every crisis these corporations come out of it on top. They shift the way things work to their benefit. NAFTA was a crisis for us. What did they use it for? They used it to ship U.S. union manufacturing jobs overseas to non-union places.”
From New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when developers bought up neighborhoods, to the free-marketization of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, he noted, the profiteers always come in the wake of the crisis. “Union workers are tired of watching the rich and corporations take advantage of crisis to screw us over.”
Cramped at the Call Center
Call centers are the backbone of both the public and private sectors, and many are especially busy right now, as businesses and government agencies scramble to adapt to the virus. Yet call centers are also practically designed to be spreading grounds for COVID-19. It might seem easy for workers to do those jobs from home, but in practice many are still reporting to work.
One of the Conduent workers, who did not want her name used to avoid retaliation, described her facility as having “no social distancing,” and said as far as she could tell the cleaning process had not changed. “Apparently they did get some hand sanitizer, but it’s in the back, so we have to use our break time to have it filled, and there’s one bottle for people to share, every so many rows.”
The workers sit in cubicles that she described as “like sardine cans.” In response to the virus, she said, they were spaced out to every other cubicle, “so there is a three-foot gap between desks, but there is no gap in front of you, and the wall is only a foot and a half or so tall. All you have to do is sit up real tall, and then you can make eye contact. Meanwhile, the management sits on the end, and their desks are raised, looking down over us.”
This was all even more frustrating because, she noted, one of the services Conduent provides is tracking the coronavirus. A statement on its website described its services as “an essential tool for public health, especially when health agencies require more timely and accurate analytical tools for collaboration — a critical part of preventing the spread of highly contagious diseases.”
“To me, it’s a real slap in the face that they know how bad it is at a higher level, and they did nothing to prepare,” the worker said.
Her typical work volume had doubled since the virus began, she noted, because her work involved processing people’s paperwork for healthcare plans and time off for illness. In other countries, she said, the company had closed its facilities—contributing to the increased call volume—so why not in the United States?
What if Nurses Ran the Health Care System?
Nurses and healthcare workers across the country took part in a day of action on Wednesday, April 15 to demand proper personal protective equipment (PPE)—for their own and their patients’ safety.
Elizabeth Lalasz was one of those nurses, and we spoke shortly after the action concluded in Chicago, where she is a nurse at John H. Stroger Hospital and a member of National Nurses United.
“We had about fifteen or twenty nurses. I was actually pleasantly surprised,” she said. Many of the nurses who came out worked in the emergency room, and they wanted to express what they’d seen, working on the front lines of the pandemic in a big safety-net hospital in a major city. Working at a safety-net hospital, she explained, means that “We don’t refuse anybody.”
In that hospital, nurses are being told to reuse N95 masks, sometimes for up to forty-five days.
Three months ago or less, we were told one-time use per patient. Maybe, you’d use the same one through a shift, but never for multiple days. We’re told to put them in a paper bag and hold them in our lockers . . . How you can take it out without somehow contaminating yourself or anyone else or another patient is kind of a mystery.
My chief steward was talking about how the federal government has really failed us, that the system is broken, which is obviously one of the hashtags for today’s national day of action. The feeling is that there is a great inequality that exists across this country from those who are in power. Then, the rest of us who are clearly on the front lines and experience some really frightening situations where we feel very uncertain going into work every day.
The crisis is pushing healthcare workers in a way that Lalasz sees as similar to the recent waves of teacher organizing and striking.
We take in a lot and don’t talk about it, and there’s been sort of an assumption that if you’re in healthcare, that’s what you do: you just accept the reality of what you’re doing and the short-staffing and the lack of supplies and the long hours and all the paperwork and the bureaucracy and all the blaming of us as nurses because we are predominantly women, so we are to blame for everything because we are there with the patient all the time. Now, it is hard to really get yourself ready to go through your day because you’ve got COVID now on top of that. It just feels so, so uncertain.
The newness of the virus means that caring for patients, she said, is an ongoing experiment. “We are figuring it out as we go, how to do the best we can for these patients while trying to figure this disease out and what it looks like.” Through the union, she said, they can share and demand more information on best practices and figure out what’s working in other parts of the country and the world.
We are certainly trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work, which is what we should be doing—which, also, is why we should run healthcare, because we have the skills. Collectivizing helps us to be able to talk to each other about what seems to be working better and trying that on our patients to try to save them.