New York, NY – Now that plans are in motion to get back to normal, the city is beginning to show more life. Traffic is picking up, people are returning to the streets and mask restrictions are easing. Many of those who’ve been working remotely are planning to return to their offices by September. There are those, however, who have remained on the job throughout the entire shutdown. They are the essential workers.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines the term “essential workers” as “those who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continue the infrastructure operations. Critical infrastructure is a large umbrella term encompassing sectors from energy to defense to agriculture.”
As for workers like myself in the union trades, essential workers are those who stayed onsite during the pandemic. Workers like Tommy T., who retired from the MTA this year. “I felt more sacrificial than essential,” he told me during a recent conversation about the pandemic. Like countless others, Tommy lost coworkers who stayed on the job despite the threat of COVID-19. “We still had to be at work every day. It was like no matter where you turned, you just couldn’t get away from what was going on.”
The term “essential workers” is, indeed, an umbrella term that encompasses all who stayed on during the shutdown. This includes workers in the food service and delivery industries, as well. I would be remiss, however, to exclude the obvious — and perhaps most essential and most impacted essential workers of all.
Over the past year, healthcare workers risked all defending us against the virus. Supplies were limited, staff were overworked, protocols had to change to accommodate the unthinkable volume of patients.
In a previous article, a nurse from a private hospital in Suffolk County described conditions as “War-like.”
“I was put into situations that I was not trained or prepared for,” the nurse said. “But we had no choice. Even if we were infected and asymptomatic, we were told to show up for work.”
Maria Lobifaro works as a nurse at the Brooklyn VA Hospital Medical Center. I recently had the opportunity to talk to her about her experiences. Like so many others in healthcare, this nurse brings up excellent points about the realities of working through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Firstly, there is the daily trauma of facing high-volume deaths. Secondly, there is the trauma that comes from having to make tough “on the spot” decisions and the extreme sense of guilt that sometimes arises for many nurses and doctors.
Furthermore, now that our city is looking to return to normal — how does one go from essential to normal? Lobifaro discussed the losses that nurses witnessed, the crushing fatalities and the feelings of helplessness. There was simply no getting away from the trauma. The news reports were constant. Inaccurate and insulting portrayals about the virus on television medical dramas only made things worse. “It wasn’t like that at all,” Lobifaro says when asked about Hollywood’s fictionalized version of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lobifaro also talked about the emotions many of her colleagues are feeling. The impending doom of Karmic law — as if something is going to happen to them for all those lost during this crisis. How does someone return to normal after this? How does someone cope after being around so many deaths in such a short period of time?
Consider the people who died in hospitals without their families. Think about the bodies that were stored in refrigeration trucks. How does someone who experienced sights like this go back to normal? More importantly, what support services are being provided to those in the healthcare system?
There are many who have reached out for professional guidance. These essential workers, however, have found it difficult to connect through the proper channels. Before returning to normal, we first have to ensure the proper support. We need to see to it that our essential healthcare workers receive the proper services. Not only this, we need to make sure this happens without stigma.
By definition, the term “essential” means absolutely necessary. This means that essential workers are people who are absolutely necessary. Therefore, proper support for these workers is absolutely necessary. For essential workers who could not get away from the tragedy in their positions during the pandemic, the results of the virus will not end when the reopening begins.
On a personal note, with regards to the further reopening of New York…open your eyes, Governor Cuomo — there’s a long list of “essentials” you have yet to consider.
Ben Kimmel is a proud member of the IUOE Local 94, as well as an Author, Writer on thewrittenaddiction.com, Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Certified Addiction and Recovery Coach, Certified Professional Life Coach, and Peer & Wellness Advocate. Ben can be reached at email@example.com