Madeline Leung Coleman: Essential workers are being treated as expendable
Even mild cases of COVID-19 have affected workers’ ability to do their jobs and enjoy their lives, sometimes causing miserable knock-on effects on their finances. Benjamin Walmer is a New Jersey chef and architect specializing in kitchen and restaurant design, who contracted a minor case of COVID-19 in March. “I’ve had colds that had worse symptoms,” he told me. Nevertheless, he said, the illness affected his ability to hold meetings, visit people’s homes and businesses, and find new clients. “Relationships are everything in this industry, and there’s a great deal of intimacy around design,” he said. “There were these multiple points of disruption that compounded one another.”
More severe cases have had more severe effects, for workers and the companies that employ them. Yvonne Evans has been a nurse for three decades, and runs a surgical clinic at the John D. Dingell Veterans Administration Medical Center in Detroit. She contracted a severe case of COVID-19 in the spring and is a long-hauler: She still has fatigue and shortness of breath half a year later. “I know what is happening to me; that’s the scary part,” she told me. “I know vasoconstriction when I see it.”
She now uses a mobility scooter to get around the hospital, and struggles to work as she used to. She said she was contemplating retiring early, although that would be a significant financial hit to her family. “Do I need to go on disability? I don’t know,” she said. “I’m trying to see how much damage it has done to my lungs, because the lungs do regenerate tissue.” Losing highly experienced professionals like Evans is straining the health system and the broader workforce. More than 200,000 health workers have contracted COVID-19 this year, and roughly 1,000 have died.
Other essential workers are bearing extraordinary risk, too. Francis Robateau was a veteran night manager for a Southern California grocery store, restocking shelves and managing inventory. Unable to both practice social distancing and keep the store filled with goods, he caught COVID-19. “I started having massive migraines,” he told me, adding that he still struggled with neurological symptoms and headaches weeks later. Concerned that his employer did not take safety protocols seriously enough, he ended up quitting. “I haven’t been making any income,” he told me. “My partner has been taking care of it—her mindset is ‘No, dude, you’re not feeling 100 percent; there’s no reason for you to take a full-time job.’”
For some, sickness has been catastrophic. Paz Aguilar, who worked at two fast-food restaurants in Oakland, California, ended up in a medically induced coma after contracting COVID-19, along with half a dozen of her co-workers. A stroke left her partially paralyzed. “I’d like to go back to work,” she told me, speaking in Spanish. But she cannot imagine doing so. That has put her and her extended family at severe economic risk, and increased the caretaking burden on her relatives.