On the job: essential workers die first

New Orleans   The reports of pandemic deaths of essential workers are harrowing. A lot of attention, deservedly, has been given to healthcare workers of all kinds who are living and breathing the virus in emergency rooms and intensive care units. Others are also falling like flies. A South Dakota Smithfield meatpacking plant was shut down with over 80 cases. Delivery drivers for school lunch programs have died, stopping foot depot pickups in some districts that have been a lifeline for lower income children. Grocery store chains are reporting numerous illnesses and deaths. The conundrum is clear. The workers are essential and in many of these cases these are lower waged workers who have to make money to survive, so they have no choice but to go to work, often at their own peril, given the laxness that employers are giving to their health and safety.

As the pressure increases and the President and his economic whisperers here and there try to push a reopening of the economy, ready or not, it is hard not to see their voices twisting the health advice from state and federal health officials as they prepare despite the risks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responsible for our food chain from farm to grocery stores is issuing guidelines that seem most concerned with keeping stores open and workers at their post. According to the Washington Post, the FDA echoed,

“… the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has reversed its previous recommendations that workers exposed to someone with covid-19 (or even someone showing symptoms of the disease caused by coronavirus) should be sent home and quarantined for 14 days…. the agencies are not recommending that employees potentially exposed to the coronavirus be sent home and quarantined. Instead, the agencies recommend that employers assess the exposed workers’ health before they start a shift, including temperature checks. Potentially exposed employees should also wear masks, maintain six feet of separation from co-workers and assess their own health throughout the day.

The FDA is recommending six feet of separation for customers and in checkout lines, but is not recommending workers have masks. Note that the priority is now keeping those exposed working. What could go wrong? Everything from what other experts say. Nothing as far as corporate executives seem to be advocating.

Nursing home workers are seeing the same pressure. With thousands of deaths around the country suddenly, as the number of deaths increase, transparency is dying even more quickly than workers and clients. Many states, and Louisiana is one, claimed that they adopted their new policy after discussions with the CDC, although earlier the CDC denied having instructed them to stop disclosing the names of the nursing homes. Now the CDC is under fire in other states as well where communities are unable to find out where hot spots have developed. Given the power of the nursing home lobby in many southern states, including Louisiana, it seems impossible that the association did not push for the veil to be pulled down on the information to protect the businesses of their members, regardless of their health. The association denies having done so, and they will probably argue next that the Pope is no longer Catholic.

Cleaners, delivery workers, and hundreds of other jobs that are also essential have even fewer protections. As the health system is compromised by politics and commercial interests, it seems that being an essential worker is seen by them as acceptable collateral damage. Employers seem delighted to be able to continue to operate their businesses, but seem to be as willing to see some of their workers die first as well.

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