Life

“I Don’t Think People Still View Us as Being Essential Anymore”

One year later, how are we treating the people who put their lives on the line through the pandemic?

A woman empties trash on a subway platform.
An MTA worker empties trash at a Brooklyn station on Nov. 18. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Exactly one year ago, I started going to work in my closet. I put a microphone in here, some Christmas lights. The closet is under my stairs, so being there can feel a little like being Harry Potter, before he goes to Hogwarts.

But while I was shut inside a corner of my house, my neighbor Nah’shon? Every day he left for work, the same way he always had. Nah’shon works for the MTA, the New York City subway system. Back when I did leave the house, I would run into him if I’d been at the office late. I’d be getting back as he was heading out. He does overnight shifts, repairing the trains and the tracks so the rest of us can ride. I wanted to talk to Nah’shon about his year being outside while so many of us were in, so one night last week, I walked with Nah’shon as he went to work. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, has been transcribed below. This conversation appears in Monday’s episode of What Next, in which Slate’s Henry Grabar shares takeaways from similar conversations he had with other essential workers—a mail carrier, a garbage man, a woman who works in a grocery store, and a meat plant worker. Subscribe or listen below for the full episode.

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Mary: Had you heard the term “essential worker” before this year?

Nah’shon: Before this year? No.

Well, actually, it was lightly used—mostly when we had bad weather. They would tell us that we was essential to come in and to maintain service, just in case anything happened where they would have to send us out there to help repair the tracks or anything.

Being a track worker for the MTA is a good job, a union job, but you have to qualify for it by taking an exam, and then you wait, months or years, for a slot to open up, right?

Yeah, I had even forgot I took the test once I finally got the call.

It’s also a difficult job, you have to lift huge pieces of track, clear the rails off when it snows. It’s the kind of work you need to do in teams, just to stay safe. Is social distancing even possible?

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We can’t be spaced out because a lot of the equipment we use, it requires you to be in close contact with each other. We took our precautions, we wore masks, we did everything we could, but unfortunately, we still have people that was coming up positive or that would get infected, and we’d have to go into quarantine.

That’s really, really nerve-wracking and worrisome. Me, for example, I live with my grandmother. I don’t want to bring anything home to her and then take the chance of getting her sick. I was just constantly worried about that.

Did anyone you work with get COVID?

Oh, there was a few guys that actually got sick that I was close to. One of them, I was working with maybe a week or two before. And then it was just out of nowhere it happened.

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It seemed like every few days there was a different symptom that was associated with COVID. So it’s like, OK, this week, oh, if you’re having difficulty breathing, then you might have COVID. When my asthma started bothering me, it was like difficulty breathing: Oh my God, it might be COVID, but it was just asthma. It was bugging me out. I remember one time I was at work and I had something spicy and I was eating it. But then I started coughing because of the spice. All of my co-workers were looking at me, started backing up. I was like, listen, “I’m good. It’s just spicy. And it’s making me cough.” But they were like, “We don’t know, you might be sick, it might be COVID.”

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We tried to make light of it in some situations, but with everybody around us getting sick and me just trying to make sure I stay healthy and not pass it on to anybody, it was scary.

Do you still feel like people see you as an essential worker now?

Do they still see us as essential workers? I really don’t know. Imma be honest. We was essential when this whole thing was going on, but right now, I don’t think people still view us as being essential anymore.

Why do you say that?

Last year, there was so much talk about essential workers and how we got to be taken care of and how they have to look out for us and how they’re going to look out for us. And then when you look at legislation that’s passed, it’s like, Yeah, y’all was important, but we’re still not going to help you out anymore. Like, minimum wage raises?

Why exactly would you fight against giving people that you deemed so important last year wages that’s necessary to make them live or will help them to live easier. And that just is kind of crazy to me. Like, oh, Yes, y’all are essential workers. But now we don’t need to give you a raise. Yes, y’all put your lives on the line. But give you a raise? No, that’s just crazy. We can’t do that for you. 

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