Our Year: Who’s “Essential” Now?

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S1: Exactly one year ago, I started going to work in my closet, I put a microphone in here, some Christmas lights, the closets under my stairs, so being in here can feel a little like being Harry Potter before he gets all the magic. But while I was shut inside a corner, my house, my neighbor Nishan, every day he left for work the same way he always had. Nation marks the MTA, the New York City subway system. Back when I did leave the house, I’d run into him. If I’d been at the office late, I’d be getting back. He was heading out.

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S2: He does overnight shifts repairing the trains and the tracks. So the rest of us can ride.

S3: Whenever I’m on the platform, I’m always looking at the tracks like, OK, what needs to be fixed? What’s messed up?

S2: I wanted to talk to Nishan about his year being outside when so many of us were in.

S4: Had you heard the term essential worker before this year? Before this year? No.

S2: So one night last week, I walked with Nishan as he went to work.

S5: Well, actually, they it was lightning use mostly when we had, like, bad weather, they would tell us that we was essential to come in and to maintain service and just in case anything happened where they would have to send us out there to help repair the tracks or anything.

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S2: Here are some things to know about being a track worker for the MTA. It’s a good job, a union job. You have to qualify for it by taking an exam and then you wait for months or years for a slot to open up.

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S5: Yeah, I had even forgot I took the test once I finally got the call.

S2: It’s also a difficult job. You’ve got to lift huge pieces of track, clear the rails off when it snows. It’s the kind of work you have to do in teams just to stay safe. Social distancing is not possible.

S6: We can’t be spaced out because a lot of the equipment we use, like we have to do rails and everything, it requires you to be in close contact with each other. You know, 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. So it was just that’s a really, really nerve wracking and worrisome because he wasn’t sure. Like with 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. Or I was just constantly worried about that.

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S2: Early on in the pandemic, nation developed a routine heat wave to his grandmother as he left or came in. She’d be at one end of the house. He’d be at the other. It was around May when he started to freak out a little.

S5: There was a few guys that actually got sick that I was close to one. It I have happened. I was working with like maybe a week or two before. And then it was just like, I don’t know where it happened.

S6: It seemed like every few days they was telling you that there was a different symptom that was associated with covid. So it’s like, OK, this week. Oh, if you’re if you’re having difficulty breathing this is a problem, then you might have covid. Like when I first went, my asthma started bother me.

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S3: It was like difficulty breathing. Oh my God. It might be covered, but I have asthma and it was it was bugging me out.

S6: I remember one time I was at work and I had something spicy and I was eating it.

S3: But then I started coughing because despite all my co-workers looking at me like I started backing up, I was like, oh, good. It’s just a spicy. And I was making me cough because I. You don’t know. You might be sick, might be cold. It feels like I’m good.

S6: We tried to make light of it in some situations, but it was just with everybody around us getting sick and me just trying to make sure I stay healthy and not pass it on anybody. It was scary.

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S2: At one point in our walk, Nishan and I stopped, we looked at this mural that it appeared over the summer on a carwash down the street from us. It shows a delivery guy and a woman who looks like she works at a grocery store. Both of them are masked up. It’s called Brooklyn Essentials.

S6: And the first time I saw it, I was like, Oh, that’s nice to do.

S4: It’s it’s a beautiful piece of art, basically. Yes, it is. I thought it was nice. So I wonder if you. I wonder if you still feel like people see you as an essential worker now. Do they still see us as essential workers? Yeah, I really don’t know.

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S5: Come on, be honest. We was essential when this whole thing was going on. But right now, I don’t think people still view this as being essential anymore. Why do you say that? Like, 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, I was important, but we’re still not going to help you out anymore. Minimum wage. Why exactly?

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S6: Which I fight against giving people that you deem so important last year, wages that’s necessary to make them live or help them to live easier. And that just is just kind of crazy to me. Like, oh, yes, essential workers. But now we don’t need to give you a raise. Yes, I put your lives on the line, but give you a raise. No, that’s that’s just crazy. We can’t do that.

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S7: Today on the show are pandemic ear to the eyes of people who are suddenly told they were essential. This is the first of three stories we’ll bring you about what we’re going to remember from a year we’d all rather forget. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: What was the first time you heard the words essential workers, do you remember?

S8: I don’t think I had ever heard that term before the middle of March twenty 20.

S1: Slate’s Henry Garba has been spending the past few weeks on the phone talking to essential workers, even now, do we agree on what an essential worker is?

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S8: It’s hard to say because if you really wanted to get down to which jobs are necessary for the continuation of human life, I think the list would be pretty short. But then you start to deal, you know, and I was looking through the list of essential workers and you start to as you think through them, you start to say, OK, but like, I guess auto repair is essential work because somebody’s car breaks down and they can’t, you know, get to the grocery store and buy food. And I guess a hardware store is also essential work and plumbing is essential work, too. So it’s not just like, can I eat, can I sleep? Are the lights on? Right.

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S1: Like, basically our modern lives are so complicated that we need way more essential workers than we did, I don’t know, five hundred years ago.

S8: I think that’s right. Nevertheless, I have come up with a good little device to try and keep track of what an essential worker is. And I’ve begun to think of them as people with jobs that you could explain to children like I sell food, I put out fires, I deliver the mail like it’s a children’s book. Right. And and that’s like opposed to someone who, you know, improves engagement among key digital stakeholders or whatever, like what David Graber called these jobs bullshit jobs and essential workers are the opposite of that. So health care, obviously, but also a lot of jobs in manufacturing, infrastructure, retail and services.

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S1: Maybe it’s the thing about 2020 is I learn not just who’s essential, but who has bullshit jobs. And it was like, those are the two categories you could be in.

S8: Oh, absolutely. And I think if anything, the revelation for the bullshit jobholders was more forceful than for the essential workers, because. What do you mean? Well, just having talked to all these people, most of them, they they always knew their jobs were important. You know what I mean? You talk to a a mailman. I talked to those mailman in Fresno.

S9: My name is Joseph Garcia. I work for the USPS.

S8: And he was like, yeah, you know, that’s our whole motto. That’s our whole thing.

S9: We’re kind of the old reliable. You know, if we’re not going to do it, there isn’t anyone else going to do it kind of a deal.

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S8: You know, it’s like we deliver the mail no matter what, under all circumstances. And people depend on us for news and for packages and for medicine and for money famously.

S9: So dead of night. We’re out there sometimes. We’ve got guys out there, people out there that are out there to eleven o’clock, almost midnight, still delivering mail. So it’s a priority for us to get everybody’s things to them.

S8: And they had they were under no illusions, I think, in general about how vital their roles were to a functioning society. And it’s the rest of us who spent the last year in front of a computer not living their house and maybe are having some, you know, a ruminating on that.

S1: I’m guilty as charged. You call this one essential worker, Aaron, who had a tweet go viral. And this tweet is so March twenty twenty. To me, it was basically like I’m a garbage man and I’m here to do my duty. And people just they ate it up.

S10: Aaron posted a series of tweets which have been like nearly a million times, including this one. It’s going to be OK. We’re going to make it be OK, be good to each other and we’ll get through this.

S1: It’s like we were so hungry for people to step into this void.

S8: Yeah. Erens, a garbage man in San Francisco, and he sent out this like very buoyant and like almost like patriotic. Like, it just it just give you a sense of like pride and like, I think optimism about what it was about to happen as the news seemed to be unrelentingly bad and he was like, it’s going to be OK, I’m going to keep doing my job. I’m going to make sure the trash gets picked up and so will the other essential workers in your city. And and and we’re going to get through this.

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S1: So when you called, Aaron, what did you find? Can you guys hear me OK?

S8: Yeah. Yeah, well, so I learned that Aaron is actually married to another essential worker.

S11: Maybe you could start by introducing yourself. I’m Elizabeth. And I’m Aaron.

S8: So it’s a full essential worker household. What does his wife do? She works in a grocery store. And Aaron and Elizabeth, basically because he has to wake up. Super, super early in the morning to get to San Francisco and do his route, they don’t really see each other very much at all. And it struck me they’re having the opposite experience of all the remote work work from home crowd.

S11: It’s been interesting because we’ve been working sort of opposite schedules. He works early in the morning and I work at night. So we’re like we see each other for like maybe an hour or so a day and then it’s my bedtime. Yeah.

S8: We’re you know, we are all spending an inordinate amount of time with our significant others and learning the way they talk on their work calls and overhearing every step they take. And Erin and Elizabeth barely see each other.

S1: Yeah, I mean, was it tense for them to have these jobs where they had to go outside, they had to kind of engage with the world?

S8: Yeah, I think I asked about that. And I think Elizabeth told me she was not so much worried about Erin because he’s one of those people where, you know, he’s an essential worker. Obviously, the garbage needs to get picked up. Otherwise we’re living in the Middle Ages again. But he doesn’t have to, like, interact with a bunch of people. He doesn’t have to hang out all day in a crowded into space. And she does.

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S11: I get notifications almost every day that I’ve been exposed.

S12: I have been worried at times. And there was a point where you were exposed. Yeah. And and you had gotten I think you’ve gotten the test. I don’t remember the exact time, you know, you got the test, but you came home and you were like, OK, I have to be quarantined. I can’t be near you, either you or our son. Oh, yeah. And that was kind of scary.

S1: I’m sort of curious about Aaron and Elizabeth from this perspective of Aaron at least became this kind of avatar for essential workers at the beginning of the year, like this person that people could grab on to and say like, yes, like someone is taking care of us. And I sort of wonder how their perspectives might have shifted over the course of the year.

S8: Aaron, when I spoke to him recently about his tweets, he he said, well, things didn’t pan out exactly how I hoped.

S12: And as far as society at large, I thought there would be more unity of purpose among people than when things like happened. That’s been a little disappointing.

S11: Yeah, for sure.

S8: I think anybody who’s lived through the last year, if you were to go back into March 20, 20 and tell someone that 500000 Americans would wind up dead from covid-19, I don’t think they would believe you. I mean, I think that was that was way, way out of bounds by the standards of the time. But but, you know, if you if you if you can try and remember what it was like then. So when I asked him about his sense of optimism, he felt like the country hadn’t really delivered on that.

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S12: There’s a lot of disunity. And that that that bothered me.

S1: I know Elizabeth spoke to you a little bit about. What she felt from her customers at the grocery store and how she felt there was almost a disconnect between people saying thank you, thank you, and maybe also not seeing her as like a full person like them.

S8: She told me that she had dealt with customers who had been, you know, disrespectful.

S11: We see a lot in store people, not everyone, but a lot of people talk to employees like you don’t matter. And I just try to take it with a grain of salt. Right. I mean, a lot of the people I work with, I have never met people who work harder. Some of them have two and three jobs. They work 12 and 15 hour days, seven days a week just to make ends meet.

S8: You know, despite the general vibe societally of trying to lift up these people as heroes who are doing the important work, I think that that gets undermined, you know, with every negative interaction you have at a service job. And yeah, I think that, you know, she realized that people thought of grocery store workers as essential, but maybe didn’t treat them with the respect that that title should come with.

S13: When we come back. Henry Gabbar on what happens when society deems you essential, but you’re fighting just to get the basics.

S1: You spoke to another worker who was working at a meat plant, and I want to talk about that because it’s it can be hard to remember the beginning of the pandemic. When I remember there was this fear that there would be a meat shortage because outbreaks were cropping up in meat plants. Folks were getting sick, places were shutting down. And that’s not what ended up happening. But it was a moment where you realize like, oh, our supply chain is delicate.

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S8: Yeah, absolutely. The whole it’s all so complicated and we were so unprepared. And Christie, who works at this this plant, JBS beef, it’s you know, it’s like a big white box in in a small town in Michigan called Plainwell. It’s near Grand Rapids. And pictures a picture, a big white box with a bunch of 18 wheelers outside. There’s thirteen hundred people working inside and cows come in live. Cows come in and meat comes out and it goes to supermarkets. So this is a really crucial node on the supply chain. It’s super important, right? I mean, like this is this is the plant. She works at Supplies, which is the big sort of iconic Texas grocery store. So this is a really crucial node. And covid hit this plant pretty hard to the extent where they had to shut down for a few days.

S14: They started hitting more and more people every day. And just cause like a panic, a lot of people just went out of work, people were scared and people mortgages is that there was a back to back. So people were even scared to come to work. So. So it is pretty good.

S1: How did you find Kristy?

S8: I found Kristy through her union. She’s part of a local with the United Food and Culinary Workers. And that’s actually important to this story because while covid hit many meat plants, Christie in a way. Was lucky because she was at a plant with a union that was able to, for example, advocate for protective equipment to be distributed quickly and workers could elect to stay home and older workers got paid time off if they were over 60. So that was not the case in a lot of plants. They had face masks attached to hard hats, Plexiglas barriers, all this stuff. And yet, despite this, you know, some 80 people still got covid. And Christy got it, too.

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S1: You’re talking about all these precautions that were put into place, plexiglass shields and having masks attached to helmets and all sorts of things which sound good. But there were only so many accommodations you could make. There’s only so much hazard pay and so many, you know, Plexiglas barriers and masks that’ll make up for the fact that you have to be in close quarters with a lot of other people. That’s just the job, right?

S15: That’s the job. And there there’s just really no way there’s no way around it. I mean, I do think that the improvements they made made the working environment substantially safer.

S1: So you said that Christy herself got sick. Yeah, but it sounds like she knew plenty of other people who got sick, too. Did you lose anyone?

S15: Yeah, several of her colleagues got sick from covid, but also Kristi lost her father, who got covid in Texas and and died a few weeks later.

S1: Was he an essential worker to.

S15: He worked on a ranch, and I don’t know if he would have been categorized as an essential worker, but remember by that point later this summer, the stipulations for who should be working had changed a little bit. And it was no longer like, which workers do we need to get us through this harsh lockdown? It was more like. How compelling. Is your case to remain at home? Do you have the money, do you have the power? Do you have what it takes to be able to do your job at home and and some jobs? Obviously, that just wasn’t possible. And I think working on a ranch is obviously one that that can’t be done from behind a computer screen.

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S1: It really illustrates how when we’re talking about essential workers, it’s sort of code for people who’ve got to expose themselves to the coronavirus in order for the rest of us to keep eating or just in order to pay their own bills. How did Christie feel about that?

S15: I think Christie likes, of all the other workers I spoke to, always knew that her role had this huge importance before this happened.

S12: Did you think of yourself as an essential worker? Yes, without a doubt, yes.

S15: But I think she had the sense that a lot of other people didn’t think of her that way.

S16: And sometimes I feel like they don’t see as people that I was affected by, like like myself as an essential worker, very important worker, because we’re not working with people from WorkCover. And so but I mean, we never shut down and we keep going like a tool for the people and stuff.

S8: Say more about that. You’re saying you think sometimes people don’t think of you as an essential worker because you don’t work in a hospital.

S16: Yeah, like in a hospital ambulance or because I mean, people see as like go you are like a nurse is more like an essential worker or somebody working at a hospital or a police officer or whatever.

S14: Like I see that people see them more as essential workers.

S8: Right. But you are.

S17: Yeah.

S15: I think everyone I talked to sort of came away with this idea that they had a special responsibility and that comes with some risk, but I also didn’t hear anyone say that they wished they’d been able to spend the year at home.

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S1: We didn’t hear anyone say that, but they were glad they had done this work, and I wouldn’t say they were glad it had gone down the way it did.

S15: But I do think they take pride in what they do. I do think they’d like better pay, they’d like safer working conditions and they’d like more recognition. But I think also they recognize they recognize, if maybe not everybody else does, the importance of what they do to keep society functioning.

S1: Since the outbreak at Christie’s plan, Henry says she’s begun to feel a little bit better about the conditions there. Now, like in a lot of other industries, workplaces like hers have started to learn what works to keep people safe, and they’re adapting to a new normal.

S15: Christie thinks that the way the workers go to work in the plant now is safe.

S14: I would say they were pretty good now. Now I just don’t think that there were taking precautions as they should have before. I mean, they waited a while.

S15: Her complaint now is why am I not being paid the way I ought to be paid for the work I do, which is both super important indeed, we would say now indispensable and also kind of dangerous. And it’s not just dangerous because of covid, right? I mean, meat plants are dangerous places to work there, like among the top places in OSHA rankings of workplace injuries. So I think the anger that that she feels now is mostly is mostly about that.

S1: So I find myself thinking about whether the definition of essential work has changed and how that’s going to trickle down over the next few years. Are you thinking about that, too? Like how? Our places will be reshaped and the people who are in them by this year, you’d have to imagine that the.

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S15: The sense of grievance that has been building among people who have worked throughout the pandemic. Is going to lead in to some kind of renewed activism around labor rights. And I think you’ve seen that muscle starting to get work, you saw it in Kristie’s plant where the union was able to secure better working conditions and a bonus for hazard pay. But I suspect. That that’s going to be something that comes up again and again as we watch, you know, battles pay out for higher pay in in all kinds of different fields, whether it’s an Amazon warehouse or a McDonald’s or a grocery store or a school going to see workers, you know, taking, I think, renewed confidence in the idea that their safety. Their safety is important in that their pay ought to be higher. And again, we talked about this idea, this sort of dual revelation. On the one hand, essential workers realizing how important their jobs are and everyone else realizing, wow, like, does my job really matter? Like, do I even need to be at the office? But I think it goes both ways to, you know, like people work at grocery stores and meat plants know that downtown office workers aren’t there. You know, they’re just sitting at home on their laptop. So I think there’s I would imagine that there is a new sense of why do we value work the way we do? Is it really fair that we we do this? And I would hope that that would translate into labor reforms.

S13: Henry Kabah, thank you so much for having these conversations and and coming on the show. My pleasure. Mike. Henry Garber is a staff writer here at Slate, and that is the show tomorrow we’ll be talking about another major theme of the last year, the things and the people we lost.

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S10: And I will never, ever again in my life take touch for granted.

S13: These conversations we’re having this year, about covid a year later, they simply would not have been possible without the support of Slate plus members. So, first of all, shout out to you, if you are a member and if you’re not, now would be an amazing time to join us. You get all kinds of great benefits, like no ads on your Slate podcasts. Pretty amazing access to all the great journalism at Slate Dotcom. And you’ll also support what we do every day. The way to do it is to just go on over to Slate dotcom slash. What next? Plus that slate dotcom slash. What next? Plus, tell the you. All right, what next is produced by Mary Wilson, Kamal Dilshad Davis, Land, Daniel Hewett and Elena Schwartz. I want to give a special shout out this week to all the essential workers who spoke to us for this episode, Sean Brown, Joe Garcia, Aaron and Elizabeth Meyer and Christy Terena. What Next is led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.