There is no "second wave" for Chicago's essential temp workers. That's why vaccine access is vital.
“This is going to rip open every existing cruelty and inequality in the United States”. I made this comment to a classmate in March, right before COVID-19 shut down in person instruction at my college of social work and upended the lives of millions of Americans. I did not want to be proven right. I was proven right.
COVID-19, and officials outright refusal to provide meaningful support and assistance have devastated many families across the metropolitan Chicago area. The amount of harm caused by hundreds of thousands of deaths, permanent damage from surviving COVID-19, a food insecurity and housing crisis, the mental toll of isolation, the unsustainability of online schooling could have all been prevented if leaders at every level of government made it possible for people to afford to stay home, and receive the financial and emotional support they needed.
But that didn’t happen, and now we are facing a deadly winter as cases spike across the region, to levels not even seen during March and April.
There are parallel pandemic experiences: the experiences of people who are working from home and socializing on Zoom and ordering takeout and dining out on patios, and the experiences of doctors, nurses, social workers, restaurant workers, factory workers, grocery store workers, nursing home staff, and the thousands of low-wage workers in factories, warehouses, and congregate care facilities who aren’t able to work from home, and frequently work in dangerous conditions due to employers refusal to ensure working conditions are as safe as possible. Temp workers face an especially stark contradiction: Their employment status is especially precarious since they are temp workers (although many have worked at their jobs for years), and yet they are also considered “essential” since their labor makes it possible for many others to stay home, or recover from illness.
As we see an increase in COVID-19 cases, many officials are more concerned with a loss of revenue from bars and restaurants closing than the fact that cases are spiking across the region, with the highest test positivity rates being in historically disinvested communities. The pandemic didn’t stop just because we were tired of ordering takeout and have Zoom fatigue. There is no “second wave” for temp workers in Lake, Kane, and DuPage counties, who have faced unsafe working conditions since February. There has been one singular unrelenting wave of death, illness, and economic turmoil.
And yet, when local, state, and federal leaders discuss the pandemic, they frequently do so with only the work from home crowd and restaurant lobby in mind. Policy directives from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady focused on the capacity for indoor drinking and dining, while maintaining early closing times for liquor stores and completely banning swimming (or even walking along the sand) at beaches, and scolding Chicagoans for having indoor gatherings with family and friends. Evidently COVID-19 has a strict 9PM curfew at liquor stores, but stays away from bars that are open later. A very cynical view on Chicago COVID-19 mitigation policy would conclude that policies had less to do with keeping people safe and more to do with appeasing the interests of business groups.
Telling people to “act now” to end a spike in cases is meaningless. How do you want people to act? What steps do you want people to take? How will people get the resources they need to wear masks at all times? How will capacity for testing and contact tracing increase? What will the city do to ensure workers don’t have to choose between their health and safety and their ability to feed their families and pay rent and bills? How will they ensure that essential workers aren’t working in dangerous conditions?
Reducing this spike in cases will require leadership, and policies that will support the most vulnerable workers in the region. When the workers responsible for packaging the food you eat, and caring for your sick relatives get sick themselves, we are all harmed.
Members of Warehouse Workers for Justice, Chicago Jobs with Justice, Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, Raise the Floor Alliance, and current and former temp and warehouse workers all joined together at a press conference on Wednesday, Dec 8 to urge Gov Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health to include low-wage essential workers in the first priority group for vaccine distribution, alongside frontline healthcare workers, nursing home residents, and teachers. We cannot reverse the disastrous effects of previous policy decisions, but we can ensure that the workers who make it possible for us to have face masks, mop heads, cleaning supplies, food, and medical equipment have access to the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, which will bring us closer to an end to this disastrous pandemic.