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We Need An Essential Workers Bill Of Rights To Make Sure Working People Have The Protections They Need

From grocery store workers to nurses, from home care workers to janitors, from teachers to delivery workers to domestic workers — there is an invisible, undervalued army of people who make our lives possible. Their work is essential, and it always has been.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

States across the country are beginning to reopen their economies, and from videos of crowded bars to images of maskless people gathering in parks, it’s clear that people want to believe the coronavirus pandemic is over. People are even starting to use the term “post-COVID.” 

But no matter how hard we try, we cannot simply will the pandemic away. We cannot just decide it is time to move on. That’s not how it works. 

When you look at the numbers, we are not post-anything — we’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic. No, this is not a “second wave” — we haven’t made it out of the first. The truth is, the danger and risks of the virus are still here. COVID-19 is no less lethal or terrifying than it was in March when the world shut down.

One group of people that understands this reality all too well are the essential workers, whose pandemic experiences have been markedly different from those of everyone else. Nothing has changed for them — particularly the dangers.  

As our country became the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, millions of people across the United States stayed home to stop the spread. Those who were lucky were able to keep their jobs and work from home. Millions of others lost their jobs — and it was women of color who were hit the hardest. 

At the same time, workers in essential industries still had to go out to do their jobs in order to keep the rest of us safe. They were asked to care for your relatives, putting their own at risk; they were asked to care for your children, while theirs needed them. These are jobs disproportionately held by women and, particularly, Black and other women of color. In fact, one out of every three jobs held by women has been designated as essential, and women of color are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else.  

From grocery store workers to nurses, from home care workers to janitors, from teachers to delivery workers to domestic workers — there is an invisible, undervalued army of people who make our lives possible. Their work is essential, and it always has been. 

The work that essential workers do is heroic, yet they’re rarely recognized as heroes. More importantly, they are not treated like heroes. In fact, many, like domestic workers, have been excluded from the relief, care, and protections that other workers receive. All too often, they’re working without a living wage, affordable health care, paid sick leave, job security, or even basic safety equipment like gloves and masks. Domestic workers have been among the first to lose income, and among the last to receive support.

It is time the rest of us start thinking of what the essential workers need, instead of just expecting them to take care of our needs. 

Part of that means staying home when we can, practicing social distancing and wearing masks when we can’t, and following guidance from worker advocates like the ones we’ve created for families employing nannies and cleaners. No matter what part of the country we live in, and no matter what our government is saying, we all know deep down that these protocols are the best way to keep ourselves and our loved ones and neighbors safe.

Part of the problem with people pretending the pandemic is over is that it takes pressure off elected officials to protect and support essential workers. We cannot allow that to happen. We must pressure the government to provide essential workers the long-overdue relief and protections they should have had since the onset of this pandemic.

The HEROES Act passed through the House, and now sits dormant in the Senate thanks to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It would provide urgently needed support to prevent people from falling farther into economic insecurity, including direct financial relief to families making below $75,000 to ensure they can keep food on their tables, hazard pay to a broad group of essential workers, paid sick and family medical leave, and child care support

The HEROES Act is the least we can do for people risking their lives to keep us safe. In truth, this moment calls for even bolder action — an Essential Workers Bill of Rights (EWBOR) at the federal level, to make sure working people have the support and protections they need to stay safe and healthy through this crisis. The EWBOR would provide masks and gloves to keep them safe, free testing and healthcare, hazard pay, universal paid sick and family leave, and child care so they don’t have to worry about their family while they are taking care of ours. And in case the federal government fails to act, states and localities can and should take the lead by passing protections into law through their own Essential Workers Bill of Rights.

As states re-open, let’s keep the urgency of the pandemic at front of mind. While many people see the changes as a sign of progress, we must remember that it also represents an increase in danger, and an invitation for the pandemic to spread and spike.

With different states being all over the map in terms of guidelines, and a federal government that has not risen to meet the moment, the burden of safety is falling on an already-overstretched essential workforce. 

Let’s not make them carry that weight. Essential workers have already risked so much, and made so many sacrifices, and we cannot keep asking them to stretch themselves thinner and thinner.

Let’s fight for them. Let’s make sure they have what they need. Let’s put into practice the same value they’ve been displaying since this unprecedented public health country rocked the world and our country: our actions affect one another, for better or worse. So, let’s make it for the better. 

Essential workers take care of us. Now it’s time for us to take care of them. 

Ai-jen Poo is the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and director of Caring Across Generations.