White Californians got off easy—6% excess mortality for everyone age 18 to 65 and 16% for food and agriculture workers. That’s a ridiculously large difference.
The danger for essential workers doesn’t stop with their own lives. Two essential workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal recount infecting members of their families—one woman’s husband died after an outbreak in the grocery store where she works. Every day, 68-year-old Joyce Babineau lights a candle and talks to her husband’s ashes. “I talk to him and tell him I’m sorry,” she told the WSJ. “Because I brought it home.”
Now Babineau isn’t sure she can afford to retire this year, as she and her husband had planned, and she’s still showing up for her shifts at Stop & Shop. “As time goes on, everybody forgets that you’re still on the front line.” Safety measures at many workplaces have never been adequate—many have been almost entirely hygiene theater—and many companies eliminated their already inadequate hazard pay a few months into the pandemic, even as workers continued to get sick and die.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around the more than 440,000 COVID-19 deaths the United States has suffered. For workers who can’t stay home and are at the mercy of their employers’ highly variable commitments to health and safety measures, every day on the job brings the risk that they or a member of their family will be added to that toll. And we haven’t reckoned with that, either—congressional Republicans and some Democrats are still dragging their feet over the idea of taking the next four years to raise the minimum wage to $15. Paid leave is still not a reality in most of the United States, except in limited ways for limited time during the pandemic. The pandemic came, and the United States answered, in policy and politics, that essential workers are dispensable human beings.