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COVID-19 Fears Continue to Stalk the Workplace Despite Vaccine Rollout

New York, NY – The Trump administration’s failure to develop a plan to distribute COVID vaccines along with persistent problems with the current rollout, are spreading fear among American workers forced to risk exposure to the killer virus without federally enforced workplace safety standards.

“I don’t feel safe,” Phil Andrews, a Petco dog groomer in Miami, Florida, said last week. “I don’t feel that the companies have our backs. I don’t look forward to going in.”

Some 200 cases of the pernicious British variant of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the Sunshine State. Other variants, including problematic ones from Brazil and South Africa, are also spreading fast in America. 

Public health officials worry that pernicious and highly infectious mutations will spread faster than Americans are vaccinated because of the Trump administration’s failure to create a plan to get vaccines into people’s arms.

The stress and anxiety of having to interact with customers all day without vaccination or adequate personal protection equipment such as masks and gloves has made life small for TJ Daniels, a Petco employee in Colorado.

“I’m going to work and heading home so I don’t have to deal with any more people than the hundreds I have to see at work,” he says. 

Daniels expects he’ll have wait until summer to be vaccinated. 

COVID-19 sent Daisy Cruz to a Tennessee hospital last July. 

“I don’t wish that on anyone,” said the Honduran émigré, who used to do construction work. “When you are there on the bed, the boss is not telling you how you are going to pay rent. The boss should support us in surviving.”

Cruz and her colleagues at the Workers’ Dignity center in Nashville, like millions of other workers across America, say that they have no idea how they will obtain the vaccine or when. 

The Biden administration took steps to expand vaccine distribution and establish a new Emergency Temporary Standard [ETS] to protect workers on the job.  Its goal is 1 million vaccinations a day for 100 days, while the Trump administration reached that level only once in its last 40 days. But even at the pace Biden proposes it would take all year to vaccinate Americans, many of whom have said they will refuse to be inoculated.

Worker advocacy groups, however, are not content to simply let the process play out. They are determined to keep applying pressure.  

On February 3, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health [COSH] issued its own eight-point National Agenda for Workplace Safety and Health. The same week, United For Respect [UFR], a national non-profit advocating for the rights of U.S. workers, called for a mass vaccination effort that prioritizes public-facing retail workers. 

Now in its second year, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of more than 450,000 Americans with another 3,000 dying each day. It’s also upended the lives of roughly 26 million other people who survived, but still don’t fully understand the lasting implications of being infected.

The workplace is a known vector for the virus’ spread but it’s unclear how many American fatalities represent frontline workers. Covid-19 killed more than 2,900 American healthcare workers last year, according to an estimate by the nonprofit Kaiser Health News, though the actual figure may be much higher. 

Lack of hygiene for the homeless adds to the dangers faced by many essential workers in hospitals, transit and other front line jobs, an expose in the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit news organization, showed in graphic detail last Spring.

So far, the distribution of vaccines seems not to align with essential worker risks.

In New York City, where people of color dominate in healthcare and other essential services jobs that come with the greatest risk of infection, white people account for 48-percent of the 300,000 vaccine shots administered thus far. Whites are less than 43% of the city population and their share of jobs at high risk of infection is lower, illustrating the structural racism in fighting the virus.

Transit workers are among those most at risk. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York recently began posting an ongoing memorial throughout the transit system honoring 136 bus operators, conductors, motormen and others the virus has killed so far. 

Some MTA workers have long contended that the agency failed to stress the importance of personal protection equipment during the early days of the pandemic. Others, including Jersey City train operator Hannington Dia, say their union let them down, too. 

“We asked for protection,” Dia said at a tax the rich rally at Zuccotti Park in January, site of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. “We asked for masks at that point when it got really bad in March. But you know what the union said? They basically parroted management’s line. Management said that since the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] said we don’t need masks, we’re not going to give them to you. We wanted to be secure and we told the union, and the union did nothing but parrot their goddamned lies.”

TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano, however, says the union has been at the forefront of safety throughout the pandemic and that Dia is simply wrong, and his anger misdirected. 

“While the MTA mishandled the pandemic in the early stages, TWU Local 100 fought and pushed them on the issues of masks, work rules, cleaning, you name it,” Utano told me in an email. “The union even went out and obtained tens of thousands of masks during a global shortage and started distributing them before the MTA did.”

According to Utano, some 20,000 at-work COVID-19 tests have successfully identified hundreds of asymptomatic workers and more than 5,000 transit workers have been vaccinated. 

TWU Local 100’s membership is 46% Black, 17% Hispanic and 12% Asian.

Black people age 45-54 face a nine-fold higher risk of dying from the virus than the public overall. The awful statistic is “no doubt driven by who had to keep working during the pandemic,” said Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. “It’s a sad statement on where we are now,” 

“This disparity has not only held for who gets exposed and who gets sick, it has also carried on to who gets vaccinated,” Dr. Bassett said.

Dr. Bassett also noted that President Joe Biden wears an N95 mask under his cloth mask to protect himself from the virus.

A White House spokesperson confirmed the president’s practice of wearing an N95 mask under his cloth mask as a matter of personal preference. 

“If he thought that made him safer, you can imagine that a person doing deliveries, stocking shelves, interacting with irate customers, might feel a lot safer if they got to do the same thing,” Dr. Bassett added.

A study in the British Medical Journal found grocery store workers in customer-facing roles are five times more likely to test positive than peers who don’t come into contact with customers.

That small study also found that problems with depression among workers who used public transportation or ride shares to commute while “those able to commute on foot, by bike or in their own car were 90% less likely to report depressive symptoms.”

Deadly Distinctions

Andrews the dog groomer is HIV positive, but at 54, he just misses the age criteria for early access to the vaccine.

Restaurant workers, first responders, public safety workers, home attendants, and people over 65 are among those eligible for a shot in New York City — but obtaining an appointment is virtually impossible due to a reported lack of vaccine. That problem extends across much of America, although some states that voted for Trump seem to have better supplies of vaccine.

Allegra Brown delivers groceries for Amazon Fresh in New Jersey, a state that has so far confirmed 11 cases across six counties of a more contagious variant of COVID-19. She says workers like her need N95 masks and a vaccine “now — today.” 

“Of all the people in New Jersey who have gotten the vaccine so far, only 3% have been Black,” she says. “My workplace at Amazon is full of Black and Brown people who are getting COVID and bringing it home to their families all the time. There’s no reason for the shortage of vaccines other than structural racism, corporate greed and political gain.”

Those applauding the actions Biden has taken thus far to roll out the vaccine and strengthen workplace safety standards say it’s still too early to access how effective Biden’s approach is less than three weeks after he assumed office.

President Biden “inherited a very chaotic process from the previous administration,” Bianca Agustin told me. She’s research director at United for Respect, a multiracial group seeking to improve working conditions, especially for women and people of color.

“We need more vaccines immediately, and Biden should be doing whatever it takes to make that happen. I think that he has acted swiftly. So, in the coming weeks we’ll see if that produces significantly more vaccine available to the public across states,” Agustin said.

The nation has “completely failed” its workers, according to Rep. Andy Levin, the suburban Detroit Democrat who is vice-chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor. 

“What matters is workers taking action, workers taking to the streets,” Levin told me. “We need a lot of change and we need everybody in the game.” 

He wants to “activate people” in his district to “get involved in direct action.”

Change can’t come soon enough for workers like Brown, who says her job delivering groceries for Amazon is more dangerous now than it was last summer.

“This needs to be fixed now,” Brown said. 

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