We just came here to work; we didn't come here to die

Sometimes a folk song, like the one above, that has lived on for years gets to the heart of the matter. With the possibility of a post pandemic economic recovery being the only hope for the Trump election campaign, the governments, both federal and state, are “opening America for business.” Here’s how one local worker feels about going back to work:

"As I headed back to work last week, what we were told up front was "you'll be cleaning rooms and apartments (at a university) by yourself” where we are usually paired up or into threes. Supplies will be dropped off at a remote location. “Necessary PPE is available and will be provided” (minus masks that we have to provide ourselves). Last reported, we had a three month supply of chemicals (because of the shortages on that and gloves) and I’m not sure if they have been able to acquire more since I am not a part of the supply chain. The medical facilities were priority in receiving them. So I am feeling pretty comfortable about returning to work at this point because of being pretty solitary.

Then they shared with us the goals of the university (as long as the governor approves) is to have the students return in the fall with staggered move in dates. And I am not feeling so comfortable all of a sudden!

Questions start coming. These students come from all over the world (including Covid-19 hotspots). We won’t know if the students social distanced since they have left campus. Which poses questions like: What standard is the university going to set regarding bringing them back, to make sure they quarantined for two weeks or such especially coming from a hotspot? There is no vaccine as of now. Testing isn't always accurate. Is the testing even available to every student? Are we taking their word for it that they stayed in while being home? 

I work in the residence halls, where they live. I will be among them on a daily basis in their living area including restroom facilities and kitchens. I won’t have enough time in my shift to finish my normal cleaning requirements, plus the extra work  the pandemic brings on me as well. For example, wiping down the walls daily because who knows who has coughed on their hand and touched the walls walking down the hallway to the bathroom. More uncertainty. Who's monitoring once they leave their rooms that they are wearing their masks, since I will be required to wear mine in common area around the residence hall. But I think that these students feel they are in their own space. Why they should wear their masks is going to be their idea, their decision. Another question is What if the students don’t take this seriously and think it's no big deal?

The university shared with us that they are implementing a new standard. They will expect the students to clean up after themselves, with us providing them the chemicals and other equipment to do so. I don’t believe this will really go well. At present, they can’t put their snack wrapper into the trash can they walk by. We will have a strict schedule. For example: We will have a set time to clean in a common area bathroom and during that time no one is allowed in the restroom. They will post the schedule in the building when that bathroom is closed and ask students to go to any of the others during that time. But they have never cared if we put up a closed sign before. Why will they care now? And who will monitor that as well?

Makes me pretty nervous to know that I will have 80 to 100 students around me with no vaccine in hand!"



Let’s put that testimony in context.

A quick look at available web resources reveal America’s attitudes toward “opening up.” First. There is little or no investigative journalism on the risks that working people will face on the job, though the risk appears substantial. Risks and needs vary widely for different occupations: retail, janitorial, warehousing (pick and pack), and assembly line production.

Consider the production assembly line. COVID-19 cases among U.S. workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities were reported by 19 states. Among approximately 130,000 workers at these facilities, 4,913 cases and 20 deaths occurred. Factors potentially affecting risk for infection include difficulties with workplace physical distancing, hygiene, and crowded living and transportation conditions.

According to the CDC, “Improving physical distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, medical leave policies, and providing educational materials in languages spoken by workers might help reduce COVID-19 in these settings and help preserve the function of this critical infrastructure industry.”

More than half the web sites offered are from corporations trying to sell other corporations “safety” programs. There are several web sites from our regulatory agencies like the CDC, who, laboring under the censorship of the Trump administration had to change the words “required” safety practices to “suggested” safety practices, and from “should” to “may”. These newly formulated requirements avoid challenging production as usual. For example, some employers have spaced the lunchroom chairs to six feet, but production spacing, where employees spend most of their time is much closer than that.

The Centers for Disease Control recommend that employers should provide worker training on infection controls, including the importance of avoiding close contact (within 6 feet) with others. Some worksites “may” (not should) require adequate supplies like tissues, alcohol-based hand sanitizers and cleaning agents along with  ready access to soap and running water. Some worksites “may” need PPE (e.g., gloves, face shields, and respirators) and frequent visual and verbal reminders to workers.

But who makes the decision about what to require and what to suggest, what may happen and what should happen.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there is one website outlining the legal “rights” of working people that we will need to fight for our safety on the job.

In some occupations such as healthcare, workers will continue to face additional peril and we are discovering that other jobs, such as janitorial, will also face extra danger. Some occupations such as building services or delivery may be able to maintain the still required six feet of social distance, but few production or warehouse environments will attain this. Protecting employees will be an extra cost for employers, limiting profit. Stopping frequently to wash one’s hands, another requirement, will be difficult to attain in the industrial setting. Adequate disinfection of busy work sites will prove difficult if not impossible. Expensive but necessary PPE, and consistent testing of employees, as well as supporting the infected employee at home will reach deep into the pockets of employers. Will they do it?

We have the danger of widening infection on the job. But that is just the beginning. Those workers will come home to their families bringing the danger with them. A song from the singing group


“Sweet Honey in the Rock" goes:

We bring more than a paycheck to our wives and our families.    

We bring more than a paycheck to our wives and our families.

We bring Asbestosis, Silicosis, Black, and Brown White Lung Disease

We bring more than a paycheck to our wives and our families.


Add COVID 19 to that list.

If we must return to work we need mandatory rules, not suggested guidelines, for employers with real, effective inspection and enforcement. And we need an easy and effective process for employees and their unions if they have one to report dangerous situations and non compliant employers. Historically, labor unions have been one of the best ways for employees to protect themselves on the job, when employers have to choose between profit and people. 

Perhaps we will see a resurgent labor movement fighting for health and safety on the job.



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