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Farm workers have been forced to keep working despite conditions

Expert Q&A: David Strauser, COVID-19 and Marginalized Workers

The College of Applied Health Sciences has experts in many areas that have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Periodically we will ask these experts about how their areas of expertise have been impacted and what we can expect in a post-COVID-19 world. Today, we ask David Strauser, a professor in the department of Kinesiology and Community Health, about how marginalized workers are affected by COVID-19 workplace conditions.

Q: How much more difficult is a loss of work due to an act of God like this on the so-called marginalized worker? They can’t get unemployment or other services.

A: Loss of work is always hard for individuals because it creates financial insecurity, a sense of personal uncertainty, and lack of control. This is especially true when individuals do not see the economic change coming (e.g., others being laid off, talks of downsizing). Workers who are marginalized are at a significant disadvantage because they do not have, or lack access to, the material and instrumental resources that other workers may have access to that allows them to cope with being furloughed or terminated due to lack of work. In addition, the environment in which many marginalized workers work and reside are under consistent personal and environmental stressors that limit the individual’s co-workers, family and community from providing the much-needed emotional support to manage the situation. 

The passage of the CARES Act attempts to address the financial issues with unemployment by expanding eligibility for unemployment, supplementing typical unemployment amount by $600 per week through July 31, 2020, and providing an additional 13 weeks of coverage from 26 weeks to 39 weeks. In Illinois, the maximum unemployment amount is $471 per week. Under the CARES Act, that amount increases to $1,071 ($471 + $600).  However, few marginalized workers will come close to getting that amount. In Illinois, unemployment is based on 47 percent of an individual’s total two quarters of earnings divided by 26 weeks. If an individual makes $30,000 per year ($15,000 for 2 quarters), his or her unemployment benefit would be $271 per week based on 47 percent of the two-quarter earnings ($7,050) divided by 26 weeks. The CARES Act provides an additional $600 per week, increasing the weekly benefit to $871 per week through July 31, 2020.  

However, it is important to note that for many marginalized workers, the stress does not come from losing work, but instead from having to work. Many marginalized workers are considered necessary employees (e.g., janitorial/cleaning, Certified Nursing Assistants, Nursing Home Aides). As a result, they must report to work and work in situations where they are at increased risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Health care technicians and those working in the meat-packing and food-processing plants across the country provide a great example of this. We are on the verge of a meat shortage in the country because so many packing plants have had to close due to workers being sick with COVID-19. In addition to increased health risk, with schools being closed and reduced access to childcare, many workers are dealing with how to manage younger children who are left at home. Finally, many marginalized workers are in the group of individuals who have secondary health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, that place them at increased risk for adverse effects COVID-19. Lack of access to appropriate health care also increases stress.

Q: Where can workers turn when they lose gig jobs or employment that doesn’t come with benefits?

A: In Illinois, gig workers will have access to unemployment benefits starting May 11, 2020. The delay on getting these funds to gig workers will likely place individuals in significant financial distress and force them to make hard choices between putting food on the table or paying rent.  As outlined above, when individuals become eligible, funds may not be enough to provide financial relief.  Individuals may also encounter difficulty navigating the system. With many nonprofits under financial pressure as well, programs designed to help individuals navigate governmental programs may no longer be available or may operate at a reduced capacity, further increasing stress on the unemployed. 

Q: Many marginalized workers cannot work from home. What can they do?

A: Many marginalized workers cannot work at home because they have been identified as necessary workers, placing them at increased risk for becoming infected. For many of the jobs held by marginalized workers, social distancing is not feasible and the work environment does not allow for many of the CDC guidelines to be implemented. Many of these workers also depend on public transportation, where social distancing can prove difficult. 

Q: Will those workers with comorbidities have more trouble re-entering the work force because of insurance concerns?

A: Access to health insurance and appropriate health care is a significant issue impacting many workers in the U.S., especially those working in low wage positions. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on individuals with co-morbid health conditions, such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. A bigger potential issue emerging is further reduced physical capacity for those individuals with co-morbid conditions from the residual effects of being infected and recovering from COVID-19. The combination of working in positions with increased risk of infection, the presence of co-morbid conditions, and the lack of resources place individuals at increased physical and psychological risk of decreased health outcomes, which stresses an individual’s ability to meet the demand of work. Importantly, workers with comorbidities will face a difficult decision about re-entering the workforce. Although many may need to work to obtain health insurance, doing so may put them at increased risk of infection, especially given their comorbidities. Faced with this difficult choice, we cannot presume that workers will risk re-entering the workforce. Many may seek SSDI. But will they qualify? Can access Medicaid? This uncertainty and the lack of resources available to navigate the bureaucracy (for instance, some state governments are cutting funding for legal aid) are additional stressors with which these individuals must cope.

A group that will be significantly impacted that is not being talked about at all right now is high school students with disabilities who will be looking to transition from high school to work for the first time. It is likely that a large number of students with disabilities will not enter the labor market, placing them at increased risk for long-term unemployment and developing additional co-morbid physical and mental health conditions that will reduce future work capacity. Individuals aging out of foster care and those being released from prison will experience similar difficulties, placing them at risk for negative outcomes ranging from chronic unemployment, increased recidivism, and homelessness. Finally, adults who are participating in adult day services, that often include vocational services, will experience a cut in services placing them at increased risk for negative outcomes

Q: Workers on the H-2A guest worker program make up an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. agricultural workforce. But now the Trump administration is looking to cut their pay in the middle of a pandemic, ostensibly to help farmers. Your reaction? 

A: A further example of the current administration’s targeting of non-U.S. citizens combined with the devaluation of marginalized workers and the systemic problem of pay inequity. This is a good time for all of us to become reacquainted with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement in the late 1960s.   

Q: Black sanitation workers in Pittsburgh recently carried out a one-day strike to fight for protective clothing. How common is this?

A: I believe this is becoming more common as frontline workers are facing increased stress from the lack of access to necessary safety equipment. Workers at Amazon protested working conditions, and, after doing so, an individual who tried to organize workers was fired and publicly scapegoated by the company. Amazon is also being sued in New York because their warehouses are not following social distancing guidelines.  I have seen more ads for health care unions and their push to organize and demand a better work environment and increased safety on the job. Workers in Missouri filed an unsafe workplace complaint against Smithfield, and a judge ordered the company to comply with federal guidelines. In New York City, 10,000 correction officers have sued to remedy the lack of safety practices in jails and prisons that place both inmates and correctional officers at increased risk of COVID-19. In Richmond, Va., bus drivers called out of work to protest lack of hazard pay. Unions across the country are fighting for increased access to PPE and hazard pay. My guess is more will be coming as we become more aware of the issues and unsafe environments that many of these workers have had to endure since the start of the pandemic.

Despite actions by workers, industry is responding as well. There have been widespread attempts to discourage unions, and the president has issued an Executive Order declaring meat-packaging workers essential employees, essentially mandating them to work despite the poor work conditions. While many industries hold out their workers as “heroes on the front line,” they often implement policies that suppress wages, minimize workplace protections, and work to diminish bargaining power that could potentially lead to increased wages and protections on the job. Overall, the shortages of certain goods, such as meat, will lead to production-centric decisions, likely placing workers at increased risk. 

Q: Lower-income workers are still forced to go to their jobs, many via public transportation, where social distancing rules have not been followed. Is this emblematic of part of the problem for the marginalized worker?

A: Yes. This pandemic has actually lifted the veil on existing inequity in terms of pay, work conditions, and transportation. Issues in the workplace that negatively impact low-income workers are threefold. First, low-income workers typically are physically exposed to repetitive work, toxins, chemicals, and noise that cause harm. Second, low wages and the lack of benefits are financial factors that contribute to poor work environments and have been found to have a negative impact on health and well-being. Finally, an often-overlooked way the work can cause harm is psychosocially. Work that has high demands and low control, an imbalance between effort and reward, is socially isolated, and has real or perceived job insecurity negatively impact an individual’s health and well-being 

Q: Will these types of employees have the most difficult time when the economy does return?

A: Yes. The saying last hired, first fired, historically has applied during times of financial downturns, such as recessions. When the economy is strong, businesses must make more concessions to employees, and they are more accommodating to hiring and supporting marginalized individuals, including individuals with disabilities, criminal backgrounds, poor employment histories, and lower work skills.  When the labor market is tight, employers can afford to be more selective in who they hire and retain for positions. 

Q: What can be done, at a local, state or federal level, to protect these workers?
A: It would be my hope that as we deal with this as a country we continue to become aware of and increasingly uncomfortable with the fundamental inequity that exists in the work environment. In the short term, the government has implemented some good programs that are designed to target those workers most in need, such as increasing and extending unemployment benefits and the passage of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). It would also be good to see the implementation of hazard pay for those workers deemed necessary.  

However, it is important to point out that this pandemic has highlighted the issues of workplace safety, low wages, and the overall social inequity created by unhealthy work environments.  I think the common response from most individuals and businesses will be a desire to return to the pre-pandemic normal. But that environment was not good for a majority of workers in the United States. I think now is an opportune time to think bigger, and think change. In the long-term, it would be good to see the implementation of hazard pay for those workers deemed necessary, expanded Medicaid eligibility, the introduction and expansion of paid sick leave, and increased wages. Addressing issue related to affordable housing, discrimination, and a fairer system for addressing workplace injuries would also help ameliorate some of the problems workers face. Finally, the role of unions may need to get explored. Unions have traditionally voiced workers’ concerns about healthcare, paid sick leave, increased wages, a grievance system, and workers compensation.  

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