April 22, 2024

Essential workers aren’t being treated like our lives are essential at all

By Claire Chadwick

At first, we had no masks. The plan for social distancing was chaotic at best, nonexistent at worst. Hundreds of angry customers were clamoring to get in.

And there I was, working the floor of a big box store during a pandemic. It was all hands on deck as COVID-19 hit the country and my Kansas town.

We had lines wrapping around the building and no way to know how many people we had in the store. We tried to control incoming numbers from the front, but no one was counting those exiting. We had cones and arrows to try to manage the flow, but customers weren’t following directions.

I worked the front. I worked the door. I worked the registers and the aisles.

Then I got the most debilitating headache I’d ever had. The fatigue descended on me like the huge pallet of household products I was pushing. Unable to work, I went home, where the fatigue overwhelmed me.

I woke up with a terrible fever and a bad cough. I had to call in sick.

My manager said to use the telehealth option they offered and to get a test for COVID-19. But at the time, Kansas had the lowest testing rate in the nation. In the county where I live, there were not enough kits, so you could only get tested if you were hospitalized.

Afraid of those hospital bills, I decided to wait.

By the second week, it was hard to breathe. I was so weak I could barely get myself a glass of water. My mother desperately wanted to come to help and it was all my sister and I could do to persuade her not to.

I wasn’t the only one. Coworkers would just disappear for weeks. We were supposed to be alerted if coworkers tested positive. But since there were so few tests, we often wouldn’t hear anything at all.

Eventually, we had an employee walkout. We felt the company was putting its bottom line over our health, demanding the same level of profit despite the pandemic conditions. The walkout brought some welcome changes to our safety protocols, but not before several of us got sick.

Thankfully, I was able to stay out of the hospital, but it was weeks before I could return to work.

We’re supposed to get our pay covered if our absence was COVID-19-related. But with the lack of testing preventing many diagnoses, it’s left to the subjective determination of the general manager whether employees who get sick qualify. I’ve yet to get it sorted out for myself.

Even now, I still experience shortness of breath. My doctors are worried I developed a pulmonary embolism, and my chest gets even tighter when I think of the medical bills to come.

Meanwhile my sister, who worked at a grocery store, also came down with the virus. She’s been sick for 12 weeks, and she doesn’t even have the telehealth option that my job offered.

When I’m not at my box store job, I’m also a licensed minister. And I can’t help but wonder: What does it say about the sins of our country that we don’t treat the workers we call “essential” like their own lives are essential?

More than 140 million of us are poor or low-income in the United States, the world's wealthiest nation. And yet here we are, sick, dying and forced back to work in a pandemic that's still getting worse — often without even access to testing, nevermind health care.

How a community cares for all of its people, especially those on the margins, is how a community is to be judged. I hope, for our country’s sake, we treat our “essential” workers with more justice.

Claire Chadwick is a box store worker and minister in Shawnee, Kan., and an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign.