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Low-Wage Earners Fight to Keep Their Heads Above Water in the Age of COVID-19

Low-wage workers fear what the future portends without significant help.
Above: Airport workers demonstrate at a 2018 rally.

New York, NY – As different levels of government push for social distancing, curfews and working or schooling at home amidst the coronavirus outbreak — workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck, especially in the airline and fast food industries, are feeling the brunt of the economic crunch.

While the Trump administration debates giving low- or no-interest loans to the airline, cruise, hotel and oil industries, everyday workers are trying to figure out how to make ends meet and if they will have a job to go back to by the summertime. 

Andres Rebolledo Orozco, a 21-year-old merchandise distributor at LaGuardia Airport, was on the job for a couple of months when the coronavirus hit big.

Similar to many airport workers, Rebolledo Orozco is on the frontline during a pandemic — constantly in contact with both passengers and parcels throughout the day. 

“I move about the airport every day and I come into contact with thousands of people at the gate,” Rebolledo Orozco says through a translator provided by 32BJ SEIU. “The company that I work for gives us the passengers’ merchandise that we check to make sure is okay to go pass the TSA gates.”

After scanning, stamping and escorting carts of merchandise, the 21-year-old must make certain that as many as 50 loaded carts get to their destination each day.

This past Friday — Friday the 13th — Rebolledo Orozco was told to pack up and go home. He’s been forced to apply for unemployment benefits as he waits to learn the fate of his job.

“We worry a lot about the customers’ health and our health — but we still have to keep paying our bills,” Rebolledo Orozco says. “We are the first people to be on the frontline to be exposed to a virus — and we are first to be thrown out of our jobs.”

Rebolledo Orozco now resigns himself to waiting for an uncertain call letting him know whether or not he will ever be able to return to his airport job. Despite being a full-time employee, he received no paid-time off. He was advised to apply for unemployment. But again, it might take a month for him to learn if he will receive any help from the government. 

Even if Rebolledo Orozco was to collect unemployment — the estimated funds might not be enough to cover his rent and other expenses. Rent is $1,500. Another $500 goes to helping to care for two family members. His unemployment check could amount to as little as $100 a week. 

“Right now, with everything closed, I can’t seek other work,” Rebolledo Orozco says. “How am I supposed to pay what I have to pay?”

Like so many other Americans, Rebolledo Orozco also has no health benefits. If he gets sick, he will have nothing to fall back on. 

“The company offered me health insurance — but it was too expensive for me,” he says. 

The entire situation he turned Rebolledo Orozco into a staunch supporter of the Healthy Terminals Act — a piece of 32BJ-backed legislation that seeks to provide airport workers with a supplemental payment to help purchase private health insurance. 

“We are exposed to all different types of viruses, not just the coronavirus, which might come through the airport,” Rebolledo Orozco says. “Thankfully, I have a union that is going to fight for me — but I know others that don’t have a union and are being sent home in a worse situation.”

Jeremy Espinal, 20, a part-time Chipotle crewmember, wears many hats at his Union Square fast food joint.

“I know all the positions and do whatever they want me to do,” Espinal says. ”Some people stick to handling the cash or stick to the grill — but I do all the jobs.”

Espinal and his co-workers kept an eye on the coronavirus outbreak as it spread throughout China and slowly started making its way here. Workers went on strike realizing they lacked the amount of paid sick leave needed to ride out the health crisis when it eventually hit home. 

“The culture at the store is making workers come in when they are sick and making us feel uncomfortable when asking for sick leave,” Espinal says. “With the coronavirus as big as it is now, we were concerned about customer safety, too.”

As of this writing, there are 950 recorded cases of coronavirus across the state — 463 of them in New York City.

“I feel now the company has taken our concerns more seriously, but there is still more they could probably do,” Espinal says. 

Espinal, a full-time student at Hunter College, is currently living with his parents as he continues his studies. He’s on his dad’s insurance, but he has always contributed towards the family bills.

“With businesses being so slow, it is now starting to worry me and my co-workers because we are not getting the hours that we need,” Espinal says. “My other co-workers have lost their other jobs that they have had.”

Espinal’s 15-hour workweek is being cut down to 11-hours. He’s also had to become a “distance learner” ever since CUNY moved coursework online.

“Starting next week, my hours get cut,” Espinal says. Other full-time co-workers have received even more significant cuts. 

Espinal is fortunate, however. He’s an Excelsior Scholar and has a scholarship. Many of his classmates don’t have scholarships and must rely on student loans and work to pay for school. Many of them have lost their jobs. 

Espinal worries he won’t have a job come summertime due to travel bans and “social distancing.” He also worries about the health of his co-workers — some of who are Baby Boomers and more vulnerable to coronavirus. 

“I work with some people that are 50 and up, who have to interact with customers, but don’t get to practice social distancing,” Espinal says. “Also, a lot of our business is students. We have college and high school students, and tourists.”

According to Espinal, nearly 40-percent of the fast food restaurant’s business relies on tourists, and approximately a third of it depends on students. Those in the business sector nearby have many options and are not the most reliable customers. 

“It’s a lot of stress,” Espinal says. “With the online classes and the reduced work [week], I feel like I’m in limbo when it comes to being a productive person.” 

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1 thought on “Low-Wage Earners Fight to Keep Their Heads Above Water in the Age of COVID-19”

  1. The world must change for the better.
    ‘Capitalism has outlived its usefulness.’ -MLK Jr.
    ‘Capitalism is vulturistic.’ – Malcolm X

    Freedom, water, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare & security FOR ALL !!!
    Empathy and Compassion must rule !!!

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