Medical workers are some of the most important people right now. From research to testing and still dealing with broken bones and lacerations there is no doubt we need them now more than ever. But there are still others who keep the economy going and make the lockdowns that reduce infections possible.
Postal workers, package delivery, grocery workers, and food delivery workers are all classified as essential. In these uncertain times, they act as our lifeline and allow people to get the food and goods they need to survive quarantine. They also act to bring a sense of normalcy, what little there is to be had, and some level of confidence in this frightening situation. But, how are the workers that are on the frontline handling the situation and being treated?
Postal Workers and Package Delivery
Postal workers are continuing to work across the country despite over 20 postal workers with a confirmed case of COVID-19. In many cases, the offices took over a week to track down anyone who came in contact with the infected workers. Workers are also reporting that their local administration has little to no plan to combat the virus. Most facilities cannot be shut down for thorough disinfection because they afford the downtime.
But, management is quick to point out that the virus cannot live on surfaces like boxes for very long so it’s not necessary to disinfect as thoroughly as other sectors despite the danger of infection.
Package delivery like UPS, FedEx, and XPO as well as federal postal workers are faced with heavy pressure to keep working even if they’re feeling sick. The country’s reliance on delivery is at an all-time high and companies are under immense pressure to push past their functional capacity to meet demand.
Many delivery drivers and warehouse personnel like those who work for XPO do not get paid sick leave at all and have the implicit threat of unemployment if they miss too much time from work.
Grocery workers are so essential that many states now classify them on par with medical workers and law enforcement. This gives them the ability to bypass roadblocks or still move in emergency lockdowns.
Grocery workers and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart are especially vulnerable because they come in contact with a large number of people regularly. Depending on location, it is common to work up to 70 hours a week around hundreds of shoppers to keep up with demand.
Despite the danger, most retailers do not allow workers to wear face masks and provide limited protection. Even Costco, normally considered the gold standard for employee treatment failed to allow workers to work from home despite an employee testing positive and dying from COVID-19.
One of the common reasons cited by businesses for lack of protections is that they need to inspire confidence in shoppers. During a time when fear causes panic shopping and police intervention in disgruntled shoppers, projecting confidence is extremely important.
While most industries are reporting record layoffs, companies like Walmart and Dollar Tree are adding tens of thousands of employees to meet demand.
Food Delivery Workers
Perhaps the most vulnerable of the still active workers are food delivery workers. The rise of mobile app food orders like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub have made food delivery workers a staple in the gig work economy.
By definition, most food delivery workers part of the gig economy are not employees and do not have health benefits. Additionally, wages can be inconsistent and relatively low. Most food delivery workers cannot stop working even during this crisis. Thus they must decide between their health and being able to afford a living.
One worker succinctly put it, “You can make money anytime, but without a healthy body, nothing exists… Besides, the money you earn won’t be enough to cover medical bills if you get sick.”
Demand for deliveries continues to rise with entire cities encouraging residents to stay home. Food isn’t the only thing being delivered by gig workers. Medicine, household supplies, alcohol, and Walmart/Amazon orders are all being fulfilled by gig workers only highlighting how necessary they’ve become for effective social distancing.
To assuage doubts, companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash have told workers that they would provide up to 14 days of financial assistance to any workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19. Other than DoorDash who provides workers with gloves and hand sanitizer restaurants and other companies provide workers little support to prevent infection.
A Necessary and Vulnerable Workforce
Low wages, little to no benefits, and systems that force workers to choose between a paycheck and their health have always been there. But now that a luxury has become a necessity during social isolation, the normally invisible force that keeps our lives moving is made apparent as are the failures to the vulnerable workforces We can use this example to better structure our workforce in the future to take care of people, not only in times of crisis. Making basic benefits a right and not a luxury, giving workers more than basic protections, and expanding your workforce to give workers more breathing room can go a long way to making a better economy for all of us. Let this serve as a reminder for all the people that need help as they help us.