I Am An Essential Worker And, Well…

I am essential worker. I am a warehouse assistant at a four-year university – on paper, anyway. In reality, I have done everything from housekeeping to floors to assistant housekeeping supervisor while being a warehouse assistant. As such, I have been deemed an essential worker, as has everyone in the facilities department.

So, I get up and go to work. Lock down and shut down orders do not apply to me. I am exempt from them and unprotected by them.

I am not going to rant about being an essential worker. I still have a job, in part because my job is considered essential, and because the university chose policies that would protect its workers instead of its bottom line.

But, my coworkers and I have been talking. Being essential is not safe. Every day we leave our home during this pandemic, we are potentially exposing ourselves to COVID-19. And, we are potentially bringing it home to our families, to our spouses and kids. We are endangering their health.

My colleagues and I appreciate still having our jobs. Some of us were worried that we wouldn’t. that it would be more feasible for the university to lay some or most of us off or cut or hours ( and our pay). It was a huge relief to hear, officially, that our jobs are safe in this pandemic. However, we would rather be at home, safer, like the rest of the staff, zipped into our disinfected bubbles, away from the contaminated world and Sickness and Death.

As one of the custodians said to me, “It’s good that they’re looking out for the office workers and faculty, but they need to take care of us, too”(paraphrased). You can’t keep hearing how deadly this virus is, how important self-isolation is, how many people are infected, how many have died, and not be affected. The streets are almost empty where I live, but they feel even more dangerous now. And, I am in the streets because I have to work.

I am a service worker – I serve. We serve. People don’t clean after us, don’t prepare food for us, don’t keep our property secure. We serve them. Rain, ice, snow, even in a pandemic.

COVID-19 has exposed the reality of the class system in the United States, and most likely everywhere else, too. It has shown some people exactly where they are in American society, and in their lives. Some essential workers – I’m excluding health care workers, for instance, and the police, etc. – are on the bottom of the totem pole, socially and economically. We have maneuvered ourselves into a position where our health is less important than the quality of life, and basic operation, of the rest of the country.

Why are fast food joints still open? Well, they are open, so that the owners can keep at least some of their workers employed, and so that they can keep some money coming in and stay in business. But, they are also open so that people can still buy fast food if they want it, in a pandemic.

We are putting ourselves at risk (or being put at risk, in other cases), daily, for the good of the country. Unlike the military, however, we didn’t volunteer for it; to the best of our knowledge, just made the wrong career or life choice.

The ways and means have been made for us to get to work, to serve, to keep the doors open and the lights on, but no real provisions have been made for our continued health, to keep us safe so we can function. Because no provisions are possible. It is in our interest to stay home, but someone has to tend to the needs of others. Someone has to serve.

We (custodians, food service workers, grocery baggers, furniture movers, and bus drivers) are a dime a dozen – and we are essential. The services we provide are essential enough to make it reasonable and necessary to risk our health for the benefit of others but we are not essential enough that we can’t be replaced if we don’t like it.

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