Art for Hero to Zero.
A yard sign in Eugene, Oregon. | Rick Obst
Kim Kelly,  December 4, 2020

Hero to Zero

Concern for essential workers becomes a casualty of pandemic fatigue

A yard sign in Eugene, Oregon. | Rick Obst
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On any given day during a walk through Philadelphia, a city of hospitals, you’ll still see scattered signs with messages like “We Love Our Healthcare Heroes!” “Thank You, Essential Workers!” and “We’ll Get Through This Together!” It’s a nice sight, and the sentiment expressed is noble enough in its gratitude to those whose labor has kept this train wreck of a county afloat since the Covid-19 pandemic hit so many months ago. I don’t doubt that the people hanging these signs or cheering for passing nurses are sincere in their thanks. Those of us who have survived this far know exactly to whom we owe our lives, and it’s certainly not the government (imagine!), or the wealthy, or the employing class. It’s the health care workers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, delivery workers, retail workers, transit workers, education workers—the list goes on ad infinitum, but you know precisely who I mean.

They are the underpaid, under-appreciated, under-protected U.S. working class, many of whom were treated to a nightly round of applause, for a spell; some of whom were thrown a few weeks of hazard pay like so many of Trump’s paper towels; and many more of whom were just expected to get on with it and try not to die in the process. There have been a few recent bright spots for them: the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, has just shepherded an agreement with ShopRite in which the grocery retailer agreed to provide back hazard pay for nearly fifty thousand union grocery workers in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. According to the union, there have been at least 109 grocery worker deaths and over 17,400 grocery workers infected or exposed among their members since the pandemic began.

“We have been working hard for months to keep our shelves stocked and the food our shoppers need to feed their families at home,” said Sam Seeley, who has worked at a Garafalo ShopRite in Stratford, CT, for the past eight years. “Hundreds of UFCW members across the country, and dozens in CT have already contracted Covid. There is definitely an increased risk that we get sick and then expose our families. We are glad our union always has our back and fought for this increased hazard pay. My coworkers deserve it.”

Unfortunately, this victory has proven to be the exception, not the rule, for our disposable heroes, whose angelic luster has faded as pandemic malaise creeps in and profits dwindle, but who are still expected to clock in and keep the world turning on every shift. Whither now is the sympathy for nurses who are called to comfort Covid deniers on their deathbeds; the retail workers weathering attacks from emboldened anti-maskers; the teachers fighting for their students across a digital divide; and the millions of unemployed workers hoping desperately that the government gets off its well-padded ass and does something, anything to stanch the bleeding? Given this sorry state of affairs, it’s no wonder that so many of these workers have lately reached for the mortal weapon of direct action and gone on strike.

“All we want is for Trinity to hire more nurses and to do more to retain them so that we can provide the St. Mary community with the care they deserve.”

Earlier this week, nurses at Albany Medical Center held a one-day strike over unsafe staffing levels and PPE shortages. In Philadelphia, eleven hundred nurses at the Einstein Medical Center and five hundred nurses at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children both narrowly avoided strikes last month. Just outside the city, nearly eight hundred nurses at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, PA, who had been negotiating their first contract with the hospital, went on a two-day strike over critical staffing issues. Trinity Health, the hospital’s owners, responded by locking the nurses out for a further three days and bringing on temporary staff to fill their positions. The company has annual operating revenues of $18.8 billion and assets of $30.5 billion.

“We tell Trinity we need more nurses, in large part because, as Trinity has acknowledged, we’re fifteen years behind in wages, and they tell us they can’t afford to pay us a competitive wage,” says Jim Gentile, RN, a surgical services nurse who has been at St. Mary for more than thirty-five years. “If they can’t find the money to recruit and retain more nurses, did they magically find several million dollars in the back of a drawer to pay the agency nurses they hired when they locked us out of the hospital?”

Before the strike, nurses had been leaving St. Mary’s “in droves” in search of better pay and working conditions at other hospitals nearby, and the barebones staff has struggled to handle the influx of Covid-19 patients. “There are simply not enough nurses at the hospital to provide the care that is needed—especially during a pandemic,” says Bill Engle, RN, who has been a nurse at St. Mary for fifteen years in the Med-Surge Telemetry Unit. “All we want is for Trinity to hire more nurses and to do more to retain them so that we can provide the St. Mary community with the care they deserve.”

Teachers and other education workers have also been caught in the crossfire of coronavirus debates, and their unions have been getting a drubbing from politicians and the press alike for the apparent crime of prioritizing the safety of their members and the students they serve. In Cleveland Heights, OH, the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union (CHTU), which represents five hundred teachers, counselors, nurses, and other school support professionals, filed a ten-day notice to strike following months of fruitless bargaining sessions over proposed health care costs and wages. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District has been hobbled by private school voucher program expansions that will drain $9 million from the budget this year, and the district’s board of education seems to be trying to cut costs by dramatically increasing teachers’ health care costs.

“I was buoyed by the outpouring of community support during the early stages of the pandemic in March,” says Darrell Lausche, a Title I Lead Literacy Specialist. “By the beginning of this school year, I felt the winds of change from our administration and Board of Education (BOE).  On one hand, we were being told how amazing we were for adjusting to this new realization in education. On the other hand, discussions at BOE meetings were contentious and focused on how teachers were not sacrificing enough for the benefit of the district’s budget.”

Worse, the board announced it would suspend all special education services for the duration of the strike, a move that would harm some of the district’s most marginalized students. And in accordance with what Board of Education President Jodi Sourini describes as “state protocol,” the striking workers were told they would lose their own health care coverage for the duration of the strike.

“There’s a big disconnect in what our district says and what they do,” added Tiffiny Underhile, an eighth grade science teacher at Monticello Middle School. “They’ve been saying that they value us as part of the school community, but they’re making a choice to strip away our health care during a pandemic on the first day of our strike instead of leaving it in place through the end of the month.” Ultimately, a full-blown strike was avoided, with the CHTU and the school district reaching a temporary deal early Wednesday morning, though a contract has not yet been ratified.

Even workers at nursing homes, those facilities that have been decimated by the pandemic and continue to house some of the most vulnerable members of our society, are feeling suffocated by the pressure—and are feeling very little of the love. Recently, the virus has been cutting a particularly vicious path through the Midwest, so when seven hundred nursing home workers at eleven Infinity Healthcare facilities in the Greater Chicago area made the call to go out on strike, the decision wasn’t made lightly. Workers like Shantonia Jackson, a certified nursing assistant, care deeply about the residents in their charge, but they have been placed in an impossible position. The staff, which is predominantly made up of Black and brown women, have already seen coworkers die; they’re not getting the PPE—or the fair wages—that they need; their employers have stopped providing hazard pay; and the risk of showing up to work feels increasingly deadly.

“Every day that we come to work is a struggle,” Jackson explained. “I lost a dear coworker just two months shy of her retirement. Just showing up for work is a risk. We need hazard pay for the sacrifices we are making. The residents in our homes know us. They are put at ease when they see us. But now the residents have to spend their holiday with a strange face because the owner would rather pay agency workers than pay the staff that has worked for the home for years. That’s not fair to us or the residents.”

All the yard signs and earnest rounds of applause in the world won’t fill an empty belly or bring back a dead friend.

The strike entered its second week on November 30 and has drawn support from other local unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union, whose members are currently grappling with the same argument over reopening schools that’s affecting so many other educators and families. The striking workers met with their bosses on December 2 to attempt to finalize a contract they’ve been working on since June; they are awaiting a response to their latest offer. According to SEIU Healthcare, their union, Infinity Healthcare, received $12.7 million from the Federal CARES Act, but the workers themselves haven’t seen any of that money, and their employers have been bringing in temporary staffers to fill in the gaps.

Nearly a year into the pandemic and across every sector of essential work, it seems that employers have lost interest in lionizing the workers who have sacrificed so much for the sake of others, or even in pretending to care about the risks those workers must endure to earn a paltry day’s wage. It was bound to happen, but it’s still another black mark against the soulless ruling class of this country—and a goddamn shame to witness. All the yard signs and earnest rounds of applause in the world won’t fill an empty belly or bring back a dead friend.

“We put ourselves, our families and our friends at risk just by coming to work every day, and asking for a $15 minimum wage is not asking for much,” says Jerome Williams of Southpoint Nursing Home. “Don’t call us heroes if you gonna treat us like zeroes.”

Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and labor organizer whose writing on labor, radical politics, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, The New Republic, Teen Vogue, Pacific Standard, and many others. She is a proud member of and councilperson for the Writers Guild of America, East. 

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