Essential Workers Require Our Essential Care

September 21, 2020
By Leticia Tomas Bustillos, AAUW Action Fund Federal Policy Manager

Photo of thankful messages from students to school cafeteria staff, provided by Ginny.

Since the onset of the pandemic, millions of women have become the most essential workers we see and need, and on whose backs our country remains afloat. Essential workers are predominantly women of color, occupying positions that are largely undervalued and underpaid. From cashiers and food service preparers, to health care workers and child care providers, women account for more than half of all frontline workers. Every day they go into work, putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus, some because having a job today is both fortune and necessity, and others because if they don’t, who will?

Ginny is an essential worker and has been for the last decade, long before the term “essential” was applied to her title. But essential she is to the hundreds of students who rely on her to prepare and serve the meals they receive at school. As a food service employee, she is one of the more than 400,000 cafeteria workers around the country. She works part-time, and while her daughters shelter at home, she goes into the cafeteria to prepare the grab-and-go meals picked up daily by families in her community. Accommodations have been made at her school in response to the virus – cafeteria staff work in shifts and their work stations are spread apart to minimize contact, they wear masks, face shields and gloves, and at the start of each work day they have to answer a series of questions about their health. At the start of the pandemic they were preparing meals for the entire community, but with the new school year, the work has lessened as only individuals under 18 are eligible to receive meals. Ginny says she’s not worried about contracting the virus or bringing it home. She is confident she is safe despite a scare when she had to quarantine for two weeks when a co-worker’s family member tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, she tested negative. What stands out for her as she does her job each day is the response she’s seen from the community. Ginny shared, “The families that we serve have been very grateful and appreciative for the work we’ve done. Many times, they’ve brought us hand drawn pictures, snacks and signs.” They are thankful, as the sign says, for “filling their stomachs.”

Lynda is also an essential worker. She has been a registered nurse for 18 years working in acute settings. The last 11 years she’s worked in the Labor and Delivery unit of her hospital, where she manages patient care at their bedside, be it outpatient testing, active labor, or cesarean birth. Like Ginny, Lynda’s work and workplace has undergone significant changes to ensure the safety of staff and patients. She is required to wear a face mask at all times during her 12-hour shifts and must wear a face shield when in direct patient contact. Temperature checks and COVID symptom screening are done before she clocks in and she herself performs COVID swab tests daily on patients three days before their scheduled appointments. Interactions with her colleagues have also been affected: “When going to the cafeteria I am not able to stand and talk with fellow co-workers. The point is to get food and keep moving along.” Though she indicates she is not as fearful as perhaps she and her colleagues once were in the early stages of the crisis, it seems that there is a resigned acceptance of the new reality they are in. Lynda shared, “The scare of getting COVID has really mellowed out… in the beginning we were scared. Scared to get COVID… scared to bring it home. Now it has become a normal part of the work day to read our daily emails about the tally of PUI’s (persons under investigation for COVID), positive COVID tests, and deaths so far.”

Ginny and Lynda have extraordinarily difficult jobs but they have responded to the changes and challenges with courage and grace. Making their day-to-day even more challenging is the fact they live with husbands who are likewise essential workers. Lynda shares how she and her husband, a police officer, are grateful to be able to keep a steady income and not be in fear of losing their jobs. They are a bit more prudent about emphasizing hand washing, a mostly healthy diet, and keeping their three high school aged sons active. As a nurse, she understands that they are lucky to all be healthy and have no underlying conditions that can make contracting COVID-19 especially harmful. But the toll of being an “essential household” is evident when she shared, “There have been a couple times a friend or family member has turned down an invitation to hang out due to the fear of exposure we have to the general public. We learned early on we were being seen as a possible risk factor.”

AAUW Action Fund Fact Sheet: 2020 Presidential Candidates on Essential Workers

Though there are no exact figures about infections and deaths among school cafeteria personnel, it is clear that women who are essential workers have been exposed to, contracted, and died from COVID-19 at higher rates than other populations. And close to 1,200 health care workers are confirmed to have died from the virus. We all know women working as essential workers in different capacities – all who show up every day to take care of our needs and then go home to take care of the needs of their families. Ginny is my sister-in-law and Lynda is my friend of over 20 years. I fear for their safety, am awed by their courage, and admire their dedication. But my awe and admiration are insufficient to compensate for what they do every day.

As we have seen since the start of the pandemic, the federal response to ensuring the safety of these vital workers has been lackluster, shameful, and as we recently discovered, shrouded in deceit. They have punted the responsibility to the states, forcing them to make do with a scarcity of resources and very little guidance on how best to respond to a virus that persists unabated. What we need today from our elected leaders is not platitudes extolling the virtues and sacrifices of essential workers. We need concrete action with a delineated set of rights and protections that will enable essential workers to continue performing their jobs safely and effectively during this public health emergency. Such a plan will ensure the availability of protective equipment, ongoing testing to monitor contract and spread, workplace protections that will keep them safe on the job, hazard pay for placing themselves and their families at risk of exposure, access to quality child care, and additional protections such as paid leave and access to affordable health care that will help them through the fear and uncertainty should they test positive for COVID-19.

A New York Times article early in the pandemic profiled an essential worker who said: “Don’t forget that we were open to serve you in your time of need. You never know when you might need us again.” This quote is a reminder to us all.

Don’t forget.

I won’t soon forget the service and the sacrifice of the millions of women who have taken on the responsibilities of essential workers during our time of need. And neither should you.

For more direct analysis on these issues, click here for the AAUW Action Fund Fact Sheet: 2020 Presidential Candidates on Essential Workers.