As a Year of Struggle Ends, One of Fearful Uncertainty Begins

In Part One of our “Pandemic at Work” series, a hotel housekeeper, a fast-food worker/drugstore manager, and an elementary school janitor share their journeys through 2020—and anxieties for 2021.

Credit: From left to right: David Williams, Liliana Hernandez, and Charles Gholston (Miriam Mosqueda, @vientoxsol)

The “Pandemic at Work” series explores the work environment in the era of COVID-19 through the voices of those trying to survive through it.

The United States is lurching into 2021 under the lash of a pandemic that has killed more than 310,000 since the spring and upturned the lives of nearly everyone. As winter approaches with no vaccine available for most of the U.S. workforce, the new year is set to continue the pandemic’s daily onslaught of challenges. If signed into law, the economic stimulus Congress passed yesterday could become a lifeline to the millions who’ve been bracing for expirations of unemployment benefits at month’s end—and the income vacuum that would follow.

According to the latest labor report, long-term unemployment (greater than 27 weeks) has steepened its spike since September, up 64 percent. Overall, 10.7 million U.S. workers are currently out of work—nearly double the number in February, before lockdowns began sweeping the country. Meanwhile, COVID-19 infection and mortality rates continue to rise nationwide as hospitals approach or hit capacity.

“This fall/winter surge is combining everything that we saw in the spring with everything we saw in the summer,” said White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah L. Birx in early December.

While November’s unemployment rate inched downward from the month before to 6.7 percent, the statistical improvement comes with a caveat: It’s a reflection of the more than half million people who have left the labor force—those who have given up looking for work.

The COVID-19 recession has pummeled low-wage industries, particularly the leisure and hospitality sector, which accounted for a third of all jobs lost by May. Consequently, the people who work in these industries in the greatest numbersBlacks, Latinos, immigrants, young adults, and those without college degrees—have experienced the greatest employment fallout.

Meanwhile, millions of other low-wage workers suddenly found themselves toiling long hours (often without sufficient protective gear) as essential workers on the pandemic’s front lines: our hospitals and pharmacies, grocery stores and restaurants, factories and warehouses, schools and public transit systems. Fear of exposure to the virus and the struggle to make ends meet is a constant in their lives. So is being underpaid and mostly underappreciated.

America’s workers are about to enter a winter like no other. Here are a few of their essential voices.

Liliana Hernandez, California

Liliana Hernandez drifts off, thinking of January. The new year fills the 44-year-old with terror, because the final extension of her unemployment benefits expires at month’s end. Then, Hernandez and her husband, Rodolfo, will have nothing coming in. Nada.

“We’re very stressed. Some nights we don’t sleep, worried about the future,” she says. In March Hernandez was laid off from her housekeeping job at the luxury Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, California, where she had commuted three hours for the previous eight years.

“I’ve been working since I was 16. In the last recession, I was at least able to work three days a week,” she says, referring to the Great Recession, when U.S. employment dipped 5 percent between 2007 and 2009. In contrast, employment numbers dropped 13.7 percent in just the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A permanent resident who emigrated from Mexico 18 years ago, Hernandez belongs to a demographic that has seen some of the deepest job losses in the United States: Latina women. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in June, while women lost more jobs than men overall in the United States between February and April, employment numbers for Latina workers—who are heavily represented in the hardest-hit leisure and hospitality sector—plunged a stunning 21 percent. “I’ve been looking and looking for work,” she says. “No one’s hiring.”

Rodolfo Hernandez lost his job at a Los Angeles restaurant last month, as another surge in coronavirus infections and daily death tolls began straining local hospitals and sparking another round of lockdowns.

The couple have a 17-year-old son, Gael, who is currently schooling from home, an apartment the family rents in Hollywood for $1,000 per month. Back in March, Hernandez and her husband both began receiving an extra $600 each week in unemployment insurance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. For a while they were able to manage, but those benefits expired in July.

Hernandez then qualified for the extra $300 each week for six weeks offered under President Donald Trump’s August executive order. Since September she’s been getting the state minimum of $400 per week, which barely covers the bills. Hernandez regularly visits a food bank to help feed herself and her family.

“My husband, he’s used to having two jobs. In the past, if he lost one, he can find another one, right away. Now there’s nowhere to look,” Hernandez says. Stay-at-home orders make searching for employment very difficult, and in a tight job market, workers can encounter unreasonable expectations and experience abuse.

The restaurant that laid off Rodolfo Hernandez in March brought him back to work in July, before laying him off again in November. “Before, he was busing tables. After he came back, they asked him to do everything—busing, waiting, dishwasher, for the same salary as before, three positions for the pay of one. They said, ‘Take it or leave it, because someone else is going to take it,’” says Liliana Hernandez, recounting her husband’s experience. “It was like that at all the restaurants. Employers knew they could take advantage,” she says.

Hernandez credits her union, Unite Here, for easing her post-layoff experience by helping her get extended health insurance coverage and connecting its members with any coronavirus assistance that comes. But the last of that assistance ends soon.

“Millions of people across the country are facing disaster,” she says. “If the government doesn’t pass another bill to help employees who are out of work, we are facing homelessness.”

David Williams, Michigan

The difference in how his two employers handled the pandemic was like a tale of two cities, says 19-year-old David Williams.

The Generation Z-er has been working since the age of 14, when he got his first job through a summer youth employment program. He has since worked at a smoothie café, a Burger King, and a thrift store. When the pandemic struck last spring, Williams took shifts as a manager with Rite Aid, making $13.50 per hour, and as a crew member at McDonald’s for $10 an hour. He says his McDonald’s pandemic experience “has been a nightmare,” but he loved his job at Rite Aid and was disappointed when he had to quit the drugstore chain.

In August Williams moved to a new apartment in Detroit, where he pays $800 in monthly rent. “I was able to walk to work from where I was living before. I moved way far away, and I don’t have reliable transportation,” he says.

At the McDonald’s where Williams still works, many of his colleagues early on in the pandemic weren’t interested in laboring on the front lines for minimum wage.

“It was terrible. A lot of people were quitting. People were calling off a lot. They were understaffed, so they were trying to work us to death, the people that were willing to work,” he says. “We weren’t receiving proper PPE [personal protective equipment]. We weren’t given masks or gloves, and they weren’t doing temperature checks when we walked in the door like they were supposed to.”

Unstable work hours and drastic cuts in schedules and income followed. Unfortunately, Williams falls into four demographics that have seen the most pandemic-related job losses and pay cuts: He is Black, between the ages of 16 and 24, doesn’t have a college degree, and works in a low-wage industry. Members of any one of these groups have historically experienced slippery positions in the job market and tenuous financial security. The pandemic’s effect on the economy has exacerbated both of these challenges, which also compound each other.

In the spring, one out of every four workers in Williams’s age group lost their job—due, in part, to the shutdowns’ impacts on restaurant and other service sectors that employ a younger workforce.

In the first six months of the pandemic, one in five of all U.S. workers experienced a pay cut, due to reduced hours or demand for work. For low-income workers, that statistic was one in four, with nearly a third of them struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.

“I’ll be scheduled to work 30 hours a week but lucky if I work 20, because they’re always sending us home when it’s slow or something,” says Williams, whose income qualifies him for Medicaid.

“McDonald’s isn’t paying us essential pay. We get nothing for being there and risking our lives. The Health Department has ticketed them over not enforcing masks, but they don’t care,” says Williams.

“At Rite Aid, it was much, much different. They gave us a $3 raise at the beginning of the pandemic. They gave us masks, hand sanitizer, and health kits. They shipped glass shields right away to protect cashiers, and shipped social distancing stickers for the floors,” he says.

Earlier this year, Williams joined the Fight for $15 movement, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to increase the minimum wage. “Employers need to respect us, protect us, and pay us. In the beginning of the pandemic, [McDonald’s] offered us a free meal but soon took that away,” he says. “If somebody complains, they feel like they can just fire you and hire somebody else the next day.”

Williams constantly worries about exposure to the virus. “I pray every day before I go to work,” he says. But he doesn’t stop with prayer. “I get tested weekly for the virus too. I have a standing appointment, because I’m around the public every day, touching people’s food, touching money. I just can’t risk it,” says Williams. “I want to catch it right away, and not expose anyone. I shouldn’t have to put myself through this, but I have to.”

Charles Gholston, Illinois

“I have to sneak in through the driveway door after work. I go straight to the bathroom, strip and shower, and put my uniform in a garbage bag to be washed—do not pass go, do not collect $200,” says Charles Gholston, a custodian for a public school, as he tries to lay his one-year-old down to sleep (she’s not having it).

“I cannot slip on that routine, because I got daughters. As soon as they see me, they’re like, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!’ They wanna jump on me,” he says. The 34-year-old father of four works for a family-owned janitorial service, Total Facility Maintenance, that is a contractor for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the nation’s third-largest school district.

Gholston has been cleaning the city’s schools for the past five years, the last two spent at Ryder Math & Science Specialty Elementary School, located in the South Side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham.

Gholston hasn’t missed a day of work since March. But when Illinois closed its schools, sending children home for remote learning, he felt safer with only staff in the building. The SEIU member has nothing but compliments for his employer, which immediately added a temporary 55 percent bump to his previous $18.24 per hour salary. But that hazard pay ended in June.

“When we got hit, everything happened so suddenly and unexpected. When CPS was slow to bring us proper face masks, our principal went out and bought masks and temperature guns for the school,” Gholston says. “I have a good work family. You suddenly realize how everybody you’re working side by side with plays a role in your being safe. Everyone keeps their face masks up. We all protect each other.”

Gholston and his wife, Jessica Walker, own a home in Crestwood, a suburb southwest of the city. Walker is a CPS teacher’s aide, and like many educators she works from home while simultaneously overseeing her own children’s education. Her husband leaves the house at 4:30 a.m. for his 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift. After arriving at the school, he unlocks the doors for everyone, grabs the cart from the custodian closet, and cleans his way through the first floor. The second and third floors belong to two other custodians.

“I sold cars for about 10 years. I was a certified forklift driver for three years, a UPS driver for two, and an overnight stocker at Jewel-Osco for about a year,” Gholston recounts of his journey before following his mother, Darlene Brown, into the cleaning industry. She retired last year after working for Total Facility Maintenance for 23 years.

“I took on this job for multiple reasons. Yes, it has everything to do with taking care of my kids, but also, I feel like I’m making a difference,” he says. “My job doesn’t stop at being a custodian. It goes beyond, to being a big brother or mentor to these kids. You can make a difference in a kid’s life with just a ‘Hello. It’s going to be a great day. You got this! You’re doing good.’ That kid in need of good advice may be the next president.”

But the custodian still worries about Chicago’s uptick in COVID-19 cases—what it means for him and all the children in his life. Blacks, and other people of color, have been contracting and dying from the respiratory disease at disproportionate rates—a consequence epidemiologists have traced to health inequities, including exposure to air pollution, and the structural racism undergirding housing and job patterns. Workers of color are overrepresented in service industries that have been deemed essential—industries without options for social distancing or remote work. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Black employees represented 12 percent of the total U.S. workforce in April but comprised 17 percent of frontline workers.

“I question myself daily, because I’m putting my life on the line every single day I walk up out of my house,” says Gholston. “All I can do is protect myself with PPE.”

In January Chicago’s public schools are set to reopen in phases, and Gholston has a decision to make—whether to send his daughters back to school, two of them to the very building he cleans. He says he’s going to opt for remote learning.

“I want to make sure we all are under the same agenda of making sure kids are protected and safe. I feel like with everything that’s going on, now is not the time to be sending these kids back into these buildings. Once I see how we are conducting ourselves—hopefully, like we are in a pandemic—I’d be more likely to send my kids back,” says Gholston.

“As for work, I’m on the front lines. I’ll be here.”

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