I’m Putting My Body On the Line for Twelve Dollars An Hour.

If essential workers are heroes, why don’t they pay us like it?

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Photo via Macau on Unsplash

Since the early days of March, the medical director of the nursing home where I work was warning our administrators that it was a matter of if, not when the deadly and incredibly contagious coronavirus entered the facility. In the weeks that have followed no matter what precautions we put in to place, it’s been difficult to escape the feeling that the building is a ticking time bomb. Last week, that bomb went off, and our first resident tested positive for COVID-19.

Subsequently, every single resident in the building and every single employee has been tested for the virus, and we were baffled to learn that she was the only one who’s tested positive out of everyone. Given the way this virus is so capable of spreading, even on the soles of our shoes, just having a handful of residents and employees test positive would have been excellent in terms of containment. It simply does not make sense that it was a single resident and no staff. It appears as though there’s at least a chance that she was an extremely rare false positive, and her sample could have been contaminated at the lab. She’s scheduled for a re-test, and staff is cautiously optimistic.

While we may have dodged the bullet this time, it’s been difficult not to consider the fact that every day when I go to work, I’m putting my body on the line for a measly 12 dollars an hour.

For going on almost two months now, every other commercial on television, politician and pundits heap praise on essential workers, calling our efforts in the face of this virus heroic. But if essential workers are heroes, why don’t we get paid like it? Whether it’s grocery store workers, janitors, plumbers, or healthcare workers like me it’s difficult not to feel as though we’re all expendable, sacrificial lambs in the midst of a capitalist economy that is dying. I can’t shake the feeling that the longer this goes on, we’re seeing an emerging three way split in our society that grows more and more pronounced each day.

Of course, there are the wealthy. The wealthy who have the luxury of staying at home with nothing to worry about except the day they can send their employees back out in to the workforce to continue turning a profit. Then there are the middle and working class who have been forced to file for unemployment, taken out at the knees financially and terrified at the thought of what happens if they are not provided some relief or are able to go back to work. And then there’s the workers like me, with no choice but to wake up every morning and go to work, wondering if today’s the day the pandemic spreads in the facility and everything comes crumbling down.

I love my residents like my second family, and my coworkers as well. I genuinely do not know how we would get through this without each other. There are no words to describe what it was like to hear one of my favorite residents say “if I get this, that’s it for me” as calmly as though she was talking about the weather. There are no words to describe what it was like to hear my coworker’s voice quiver as she told me she’d cried on her way in to work because she was so scared. Not just for herself, but for the residents and what she could potentially bring home to her two year old daughter.

For twelve dollars an hour, we’re not just risking our lives. We’re risking the lives of our families, and even the people who might happen to share an apartment building with us. Is that really all we are worth?

Talk is cheap. I don’t feel like a hero, and I don’t like when we’re referred to as such. But I know that what I’m doing has value. I know that my job is essential, and society could not function without it. So why is it that my coworkers and I aren’t even making enough to afford an apartment without having second jobs or picking up extra hours?

More than anything else, this pandemic has ripped the last mask off of the end-stage capitalist world we find ourselves in, and shown us what’s been robbed from us for far too long. It isn’t just me who deserves hazard pay or a raise. It’s the seventeen year old working the checkout at the grocery store, terrified of bringing something home to her family. It’s the janitor in the hospital, working the halls of a building that could not function without them. Every single one of us deserves better. Now is the time to demand it.

Lauren is a writer & leftist with analysis on topics related to politics & policy. She can be reached at LaurenMartinchek@gmail.com or Twitter @xlauren_mx

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