“Essential” Workers Are Dying

America’s underclass is becoming more visible in the coronavirus crisis.

A worker wearing an orange vest and a face mask sits on a bench at a subway station.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Eight New York City transit workers have died—so far—due to complications from COVID-19. This news reminds us of Robert Snyder’s observation that “in the simplest calculation there are only two classes of people: those who might get hurt or killed on the job and those who don’t.” It seems that transit workers are as much at risk in this crisis as the more prestigious health care professionals—maybe even more. Many more of these young and middle-aged workers—not 80-year-olds with underlying conditions—are breathing through ventilators today. How many family members of transit workers are dying because they are not allowed to stay home?

Here is the honor roll of transit workers: Caridad Santiago, station cleaner; Peter Petrassi, conductor; Ernesto Hernandez, bus operator; Warren Tucker, bus mechanic; Patrick Patoir, subway mechanic; Scott Elijah, track worker; Oliver Cyrus, bus operator; Victor Zapana, station supervisor. We should also remember train operator Garrett Goble, dead last week of smoke inhalation after heroically going to the aid of passengers fleeing from an arsonist’s torching of a subway car—another form of death by serving the public good.

How casually we normally treat the lives of these and similar workers. In 1974, Andrew Levison wrote, “Imagine … the universal outcry that would occur if every year several corporate headquarters routinely collapse like mines, crushing 60 or 70 executives. Or suppose that all the banks were filled with an invisible noxious dust that constantly produced cancer … or thousands of university professors were deafened every year or lost fingers, hands, sometimes eyes, while on the job.”

The coronavirus is terrible for all, but more terrible for America’s underclass, now redefined not just as the poor and marginalized, but those who are deemed “essential”—not to heal the sick but mostly to enable the rest of us to successfully shelter in place. Grocery workers making minimum wage. Amazon workers making just a few bucks more standing side-by-side in the giant warehouses and left on their own to gauge their risk when they deliver packages. Postal workers, through rain and sleet and snow and, now, potentially deadly illness. Farm workers, mostly immigrants and undocumented, “given letters attesting to their ‘critical’ role in feeding the country.” Auto workers, volunteering to go back to work to make ventilators. Hundreds of thousands of the newly unemployed knowingly putting their lives at risk out of desperation.

Some of these workers are unionized, with some ability to seek the most basic of protections; although for several weeks, the New York City Transit Authority forbade transit workers from wearing masks, claiming it would scare riders. Others have not even the most minimal protections against being fired if they assert the right to safe working conditions. On Staten Island, Amazon fired Chris Smalls for helping organize protests against unsafe working conditions at its warehouse there—or as the company claimed, “for violating social distancing guidelines.”

Workplaces that crowd workers together may be one kind of trap, but the new underclass faces heightened risk. With New York transit ridership down 87 percent, two subway stations in working poor neighborhoods of the South Bronx are still doing land-office business from construction workers, home health care aides, and others desperate to stay economically afloat. They can’t afford to self-quarantine.

New York’s transit workers at least received the right to a name in death, the right to be recognized. It’s hard to imagine we will ever have a public list of Amazon heroes, grocery workers, farm laborers, and delivery people. It’s shameful that we already know there will be no recompense to their families if they die serving those of us lucky enough to be homebound.

In this they join the millions of American workers and working class families who have died over the years—some calamitously, crushed by a machine, others their lives shortened by workplace poisons or toxins dumped by their homes or spewed into the air, or simply the result of poverty—in the name of progress. Of progress, the great historian Howard Zinn wrote:

Was it acceptable (or just inescapable?) to the miners and railroaders of America, the factory hands, the men and women who died by the hundreds of thousands from accident or sickness, where they worked or where they lived – casualties of progress? … If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not to essential to hold the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves?

So, both the virtue and the problem of our “essential” workers—people who do the work—was already here. This is not anything new—we’re just seeing it, perhaps for the first time in our lives, with our magic coronavirus glasses. Today, they’re heroes, although all we do for them is shout our thanks out the window. When this is all over, they’ll go back to being invisible. True thanks would involve changing the values and the reward structure of our society so that essential workers were honored every day, not just once and then forgotten.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus on essential workers, listen to this week’s What Next: TBD.