Of course, many of these workers are essential; society could not function without their labor. But the phrase “essential workers” has been stretched and contorted to suit the interests of state and capital, rather than of the people whom these workers are purported to serve. For those in the building trades, the cognitive dissonance can be staggering — and their loved ones are terrified. I know this for certain because my own father is one of those workers, and my family has been forced to watch politicians make choices that directly put him and his co-workers into unnecessary danger.
In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, construction workers in the city’s most dangerous profession are building luxury towers and upscale hotels. In Nevada, a construction worker tested positive for the virus while working on the Las Vegas Raiders’ new stadium. In New Jersey, they’re hammering away at a new airport terminal in Newark, where flight traffic has plummeted and a 52-year-old airport worker — another person whose job was deemed “essential” — died of the virus on Tuesday.
But in Washington state, where the pandemic has burned especially bright, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has classified nearly all construction as nonessential and urged workers to stay home. His orders allowed only for construction projects to continue provided they “further a public purpose related to a public entity,” which includes publicly financed low-income housing and emergency repairs. Notably, football stadiums and condos for rich people do not qualify.
One wonders why so few other state officials have followed his lead. As the outbreak continues to claim more lives, Inslee’s approach must become the rule, not the exception. Building trade unions have been sounding the alarm on the hardships their members are already facing, and construction workers themselves have been speaking out and calling on elected officials to send them home. In New York, the hashtags #StopConstruction and #NotAllConstructionIsEssential sent a desperate message to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to halt work on frivolous projects. And some politicians are paying attention, including Cuomo, who called off all nonessential construction on Friday.
While some in the construction industry — particularly those who are not protected by unions and will be barred from receiving any benefits from the government stimulus package due to their immigration status — are justifiably fighting to continue operating for financial reasons, there comes a point when the costs of staying open become too great. The “essential” designation has been applied far too broadly to construction projects, and unless action is taken to protect them, these blue-collar workers are going to pay the price. Some already have.
My home state of New Jersey, which now ranks second in the nation for coronavirus cases, was just declared a major disaster area. The move will funnel more federal assistance to help the state combat the outbreak, but as the severity of the situation continues to intensify, it’s hard to stay optimistic about any of it. My dad, who still lives in the rural part of South Jersey where I grew up, is a heavy machinery operator. While most construction will be grinding to a halt in Philadelphia, where I live, building trade workers just across the Delaware River in New Jersey won’t be so lucky. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has continued to classify construction as essential, so while the rest of the state locks down and urges its residents to stay home, my dad and his co-workers will still be at work every morning. Dad told me that he has no mask or other personal protective equipment and has been offered no hazard pay. Construction sites aren’t known for their cleanliness at the best of times, with grimy portable toilets and occasional squirts of hand sanitizer (if there’s any left) making up the bulk of workers’ personal hygiene options. This “essential” job he’s working on is at a school, at a time when the schools are closed to keep their students and faculty safe.
As a union member, dad has the ability to turn down jobs if he needs to, but unemployment is only an option for so long and covers only so much. If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid, and he’s one of many millions of workers in the United States who cannot afford to skip a paycheck. There are bills to pay and medical debt to navigate. He also takes care of my severely disabled mother and is struggling to monitor his own mother from afar. My grandma is in fragile health and recently moved out of a nursing home (according to him, it shut down due to the pandemic). My mother is unable to walk, cannot be left alone for more than a few hours, and her immune system is shot. He’s afraid of transmitting the virus to my mom if he goes to visit my grandma. It’s an impossible situation, the kind that so many other workers and their families across the country are also facing, and the worst part is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
In a just world, my dad would be able to stay home and focus on looking after his family without taking a brutal economic hit. Instead, he’s at work, building a school that will stand empty when he’s finished, in an environment where even washing his hands is a struggle. Which part of that seems more essential? Keeping the boss happy or keeping his family alive?
Murphy and his cohorts are correct in designating many workers as essential, like the health-care workers, grocery store workers, farmworkers, janitorial and cleaning workers, and so many others who keep the country’s lights on for a pittance of what they should be paid. Construction projects are often essential, but with the roads empty and public buildings sitting silent, it’s difficult to see why so many of these workers are still being called out to crowded job sites to build towers in the sky and entertainment complexes.
If my dad and his compatriots in the building trades are going to continue to work through this crisis, they need adequate protection (access to soap and water would be a good start), hazard pay and the option to stay home to care for their family members without going bankrupt. They should be offered paid leave and full health-care benefits at the bare minimum, and their time should not be wasted on ruling class follies. They should be called out only on crucial infrastructure projects. Someone like my dad should be given the ability to stay home and file for an increased unemployment check that actually reflects the financial needs of a worker supporting his family during a global crisis. The people who built our cities deserve to live long enough to enjoy them once the rest of us are allowed back outside.
When I checked in on my dad recently, he was still hard at work. Yet again, I fretted that he should be staying home and trying to collect unemployment instead, but he shrugged in resignation. He’s a tough-as-nails good ol’ boy from the backwoods who considers himself invincible, so the thought that he might contract the virus barely registers with him — but it’s absolutely at the forefront of my mind. He is 58 years old, and I can’t bear the thought of losing him.
“The governor deemed us essential personnel,” he told me. “Someone has to pay for the $6 trillion giveaway. Seems like it’s always me.”
Gov. Murphy, please let my dad stay home.