“Every night… we are literally cheering and clapping and beeping our horns for people that in many ways we’re unwilling to fight for so that they could have $15 an hour. We call people essential workers now who we treated for so long, like anything but essential.” -Rashad Robinson
In this episode, Dr. Celine Gounder speaks to Rashad Robinson, Alicia Garza, and Marshall Ganz about essential workers such as caregivers, domestic workers, and agricultural workers. They discuss how these low-paying jobs are often staffed by immigrants and people of color, and how due to systemic racism these jobs have historically been excluded from laws and unions that protect workers. Essential workers are now being given the false choice between going to work and risking their health, or staying home and not being able to feed their families.
Alicia Garza is the principal at Black Futures Lab, the co-creator of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and the strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Rashad Robinson is the President of Color of Change, a racial justice organization, and Marshall Ganz is a labor organizer and senior lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder.
And this is Epidemic. Today is Friday, May 22nd.
Celine Gounder: Every night at 7 PM, people open their windows and cheer for essential workers in New York City.There are car horns, clapping, banging pots and pans, and even Frank Sinatra’s anthem for the city, “New York, New York.”
One of the people who hears these cheers every night is Rashad Robinson. He’s the president of Color of Change, a racial justice organization.
Rashad Robinson: We cheer for essential workers who have done so much to make sure we have the food that we need, have done so much to make sure that we are taken care of, um, from a medical perspective.
Celine Gounder: But there’s something about those cheers that doesn’t quite sit right with him.
Rashad Robinson: We are literally cheering and clapping and beeping our horns for people that, in many ways, folks were not unwilling to fight for so that they could have $15 an hour. People were unwilling to sort of stand up for, to ensure they had healthcare.
We call people essential workers now who we treated for so long, like anything but essential. We are cheering for, um, in a deeply present way, but we are not fully changing the rules for, so that we’re actually doing things that really make their lives better.
Celine Gounder: We’re going to hear more from Rashad and others in this episode about the challenges many essential workers are facing during the pandemic. We’ll look at why the jobs that keep our society running are so undervalued, how a law dating back to the 1930s helped create many of the problems these workers face today, and what lies ahead for these workers as states start to re-open.
So, who are these essential workers?
Alicia Garza: People who are doing this work are largely workers of color, workers who are immigrant workers, black workers.
Celine Gounder: This is Alicia Garza.
Alicia Garza: These are workers in our economy who, frankly, are the backbone of how our economy functions, and yet, get paid the least and have the least amount of protections. And that is a function of having created an economy that depends on certain types of work, but devalues the workers that carry out those jobs.
Celine Gounder: Alicia is a very busy person.
Alicia Garza: I am the principal at the Black Futures Lab, which is an organization that works to make black communities powerful in politics. I’m the co-creator of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and I am the strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is the nation’s premier organization fighting for women who work inside of our homes, who take care of our kids and care for our elderly and aging loved ones.
Celine Gounder: So you were quoted in a piece in The Atlantic recently. The piece ends saying, “We made the essential jobs, bad jobs. The burden is on us to make them good ones.” Why are essential jobs bad jobs, quote unquote?
Alicia Garza: A lot of us think about essential work and essential workers as people who are doctors and nurses, surgeons. Absolutely, but there are also essential workers who keep our economy functioning. They keep our lives and our homes functioning, and frankly, they hold the pieces of our lives together. And these workers in particular are, delivery workers. These are folks who are caregivers and care workers. Prior to this pandemic, certainly these jobs were still important, but yet these jobs were engaged in a race to the bottom by the corporations that created them.
And when you think about someone who is caring for someone else’s aging, loved one in the midst of a global pandemic, and you realize that that person is not covered by most basic labor laws in this country because of a racist exclusion that was negotiated sometime in the 1930s, between Southern lawmakers and labor leaders who were fighting for the rights of white workers, at the expense of workers of color, most of whom worked inside of homes or fields.
Celine Gounder: Let’s jump back to the 1930s to understand the history Alicia is talking about. In the 1930s, America was in a depression.
The law Alicia is talking about is the National Labor Relations Act. This is the law that gave private sector workers the right to things like collective bargaining and unions. It’s the backbone of American labor laws.
But like she said, the industries where workers of color concentrated were excluded from that law. Racist hierarchies, dating back to before Emancipation, continued to shape how domestic work and farm labor were treated. In the 1960s, when Marshall Ganz was a young organizer working in the fields in southern California, he saw this legacy first hand.
Marshall Ganz: By the time I was working in it, there were certain jobs, where this is a job for Filipinos; this is a job for black people; this is a job for Mexicans. It was skilled, great packing because they had quote small fingers, um, for blacks it was plum picking because they had fat fingers. I swear to God.
Celine Gounder: Marshall would go on to work as a labor organizer across the United States. Today, he’s a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Marshall Ganz: Oh, and, and tractor drivers and machine operators had to be white because they could speak English, as if the tractor spoke English, and you needed to understand English. They had this thing so balkanized and divided that nobody, it was so hard for people to come together. So there’s, you know, a method in the madness. You recruit vulnerable workers, you’d dominate them, and that’s just what you want. It’s how you make money.
Celine Gounder: And right on the heels of the Great Depression was the Dust Bowl. The severe drought and dust storms ruined farms, and left people homeless and displaced.
Marshall Ganz: This is the period when farm workers turned white. In this period of the Dust Bowl, which really is post 1935. I mean, it’s, it’s when the big migration comes to where I grew up, Bakersfield, and that whole Central Valley.
This is when Grapes of Wrath gets written. It’s written about these migrants, these white migrants. Migrant workers then becomes a category of white people around the country that merit support. And so this period is when migrant workers kind of entered the consciousness of the country as people who are being oppressed, and there’s a certain kind of labor support and so forth.
Celine Gounder: The plight of white displaced workers from places like Oklahoma suddenly put migrant labor on the minds of many Americans. But there was a catch.
Alicia Garza: There were many different types of negotiations happening to improve the conditions of workers. And this is really kind of the start of the New Deal era, right? Where we start to see a whole kind of social safety net that is being developed.
But who got left out of those compromises were workers of color, black women who worked inside of homes, um, black men, and, uh, Latino men and Filipino men who worked inside of fields.
Celine Gounder: The biggest pushback came from lawmakers in southern and western states.
Marshall Ganz: Southern Democrats and Democrats from the West would not support it unless agricultural workers and domestic workers were excluded. So what do agricultural workers, domestic workers have in common? Oh, they turned out to be black and brown. And so, that’s the source of the exclusion.
Celine Gounder: After World War II, fewer white families were working in these sectors, and the labor pendulum swung back towards African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants.
Alicia Garza: Care-giving, care work, domestic work, agricultural work are really the places where you see this enduring legacy of racism still exists. So you know, while we might say that as a society, we no longer condone racism, when you look at our laws and how they’re applied, and you can certainly see very clearly that there are particular sectors of our economy that are concentrated with workers of color that have less or little or no protections, no benefits, no rights, no right to address grievances.
Celine Gounder: Workers of color continue to be concentrated in these low-paying essential service jobs today. And many have been hard hit by the economic crisis caused by social-distancing measures. The gains in employment made by African Americans since the Great Recession of 2008 have been wiped out by the pandemic.
Alicia Garza: And a lot of this has to do with the fact, right, that black workers were already extremely precarious in an economy that did not design structures to protect them against discrimination and against exploitation.
Celine Gounder: Those who still have jobs face a hard dilemma.
Alicia Garza: Do I expose myself and my family to COVID by riding public transportation to get to work, by going in and out of a home where somebody also may have been exposed? Do I make the choice to become a live-in caregiver, to reduce the risk of exposure? But then if I do that, what happens to my family and how will they care for themselves? Or do I decide not to go to work and lose those wages that are essential for me to be able to pay rent or to pay my kids’ tuition? Or even to put money on the books of a commissary for a loved one who is incarcerated. These are untenable choices that people are facing in our industry. And I would say that it’s important to understand, again, that these aren’t just sad stories. These are stories that were constructed by rules that have been rigged in favor of the powerful and against those who should be powerful because of the central role they play in powering our economy, but frankly, who are seen as disposable.
Celine Gounder: So how tenuous is somebody’s employment? You know, if you are a domestic worker and you ask to take time off, maybe for your own health, for a family member, how likely is that to happen that you would get fired over something like that?
Alicia Garza: It’s happening right now, and it happens frequently, and the reason that it happens is that there is a lack of rules that establish what is fair, right, and just. When you are carved out of protections, it means that there are no boundaries as to what is appropriate for employers to do and not to do. And that means that there’s no protections for workers who are subject to, uh, a economy with no rules, no regulations, but certainly workers who are vulnerable to being fired, uh, being laid off, being abused, or not being paid.
Rashad Robinson: We are literally putting people into a death sentence. We’re giving people a choice between their jobs and feeding and taking care of their families and their health. And it’s actually an absolute false choice because if they go back to work, their health is now at risk as well.
Celine Gounder: Rashad Robinson again.
Rashad Robinson: The history of false choices for black people, at the heart of it is like, becomes, uh, a thing that impedes our health. Corporations and businesses will blame folks for going to work sick and then not actually give people paid sick leave. Right? And then what kind of Catch 22 is that?
These will be the choices, and believe me, they are choices that are being made right now that will keep this disease around longer than it needs to be, will make the pain and suffering much deeper, and ensure that the communities that are bearing the burden will continue to bear the burden for much longer than necessary.
Celine Gounder: Part of that burden is getting blamed for the disease. Dr. Tony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx spoke last month about how the high levels of comorbidities, things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking, put African Americans at higher risk for severe disease from COVID.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, who is African American, came under fire for some of his comments about this.
Dr. Adams: “When you look at being Black in America, number one, people are unfortunately more likely to be of low socio-economic status, which makes it harder to social distance. Number two, we know blacks are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and I shared myself, personally, that I have high blood pressure, that I have heart disease, and spent a week in the ICU due to a heart condition, that I actually have asthma, and I’m pre-diabetic. And so I represent this legacy of growing up poor and black in America. I and other African Amercians are at a higher risk for COVID, and that’s why we need everyone to do their part to slow the spread.”
Rashad Robinson: You had the surgeon general telling, specifically black people, all these things that they should be doing as the President of the United States is trying to weaken protections around pollution and our community. So telling black people about individual behaviors they can be doing while making our communities less safe for us from a respiratory perspective.
We get denied access to healthcare, and they get blamed for being unhealthy. It is as old as America to sort of create un-winnable conditions, and then blame people for not winning inside of those un-winnable conditions. And part of what any serious person that actually wants to get us out of this has to focus on, is focusing on changing the structures and changing the rules.
Now, like everyone, I want the best for my people. And, at the same time, we have to recognize what solutions will actually get us to move forward.
Celine Gounder: In the meantime, many states have already started to re-open their economies, sometimes despite increasing numbers of COVID cases.
How should we be talking about reopening the economy? You know, what are some of the things we need to be doing to do that safely?
Rashad Robinson: Well first, one of the clear things we need in order to open economies, we need testing. And so there are things that the federal government said that they would do a while ago that they actually haven’t done, and now they are trying to get away with reopening things, without having sort of met the responsibility of simply testing us. Um, and so in the richest country in the world, we still can’t get tests.
Celine Gounder: Besides testing, some lawmakers have already started exploring another option: an Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights. Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and U.S. Representative Ro Khanna, have all called for some version of this.
How do those attempt to rectify some of these longstanding lack of protections? And how is that relevant now during the COVID pandemic?
Alicia Garza: Well, I think one thing that it does is it clarifies who essential workers are, and it expands the definition of essential workers to be able to be relevant to today’s economy and today’s society. So that’s important. I think the other thing that it does is it establishes a series of rules, a floor if you will. Of course, when I say established as a floor, I say this as establishing the bare minimum. Obviously in the global pandemic, we would want companies to go above and beyond, in terms of making sure that workers are protected, that workers are being paid fairly, and that workers have access to the kinds of benefits that they need to care for themselves and care for their families.
Celine Gounder: Alicia says that any additional COVID-relief needs to move beyond immediate assistance alone.
Alicia Garza: One of the things that we notice, uh, in the kind of recent series of CARES Act legislation is that, while it’s important to immediately address some of the gaps that workers have been experiencing for decades and that are heightened under this crisis, a certain type of policymaking that, when it looks at problems in a race neutral way, it only addresses problems for folks who can be in the economy in a race-neutral way.
Celine Gounder: But even when there is immediate help, there are hurdles to access it.
Alicia Garza: When it comes to being able to access stimulus money, there’s a lot of different types of debt that you cannot have. If you are trying to access stimulus resources, you can’t be behind in child support. You can’t owe money to the IRS. You have to have paid your taxes in full for the previous few years in order to access this. But we already know that the gap, the wealth gap between black families and white families, is something like five times, right? And so how do you go into a global crisis, offer resources for people to barely stay afloat, but then put a bunch of conditions on them, um, that define the economic position of black families in this country.
Celine Gounder: Some of these issues feel so big and so deeply ingrained in our society that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it. But Rashad had a personal story that I think a lot of people can understand.
Rashad Robinson: I think about this sort of from a number of perspectives. I remember in 2002 when I came out, the thing that everyone said was, “Be safe.” You know and it was a probably a mix of obviously, you know, the world of hate crimes and physical abuse that LGBT people faced at much higher rates then, but still face now. It was also connected to HIV and AIDS, which was a thing that was way more taboo to talk about, and we had way less resources to deal with it, and people would say, “Stay safe.”
They wouldn’t then move to like, “How do I make the world safe for you?” They weren’t sort of joining an effort to go into their communities and fight for the type of rule changes that would actually make the world safe. They put it all on me at 22 to like, be safe. And so this is not just a thing that black people face, it as a, it is a thing that folks who are traditionally oppressed, um, experience where we are left up to ourselves to overcome conditions that have been created by society. And part of what COVID is exposing is all the ways in which this disease is impacting many people across society, and we have to build the structures to change that and to change those rules.
Celine Gounder: So, put this in terms of those cheers for essential workers. It’s great. It expresses appreciation and gratitude in the moment. It builds community. But if it’s heartfelt, there’s a lot of work left to be done to make sure the people who keep our society running can earn a living wage while doing it.
Celine Gounder: “Epidemic” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. We’re funded in part by listeners like you. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast.
Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, Isabel Ricke, Claire Halverson, and Julie Levey.
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Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder.
Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.”