'We're disposable': Faced with coronavirus dangers every time they do their jobs, essential workers are still pushing for better pay and adequate PPE

insider@insider.com (Rhea Mahbubani)
A worker disinfects shopping carts at a Publix grocery store in Florida.

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  • The coronavirus forced millions to shelter at home as countries raced to "flatten the curve" of the infection's rate of spread.
  • Millions of others, however, never had the choice of staying home because their work continued even as the pandemic raged on.
  • Doctors, nurses, policemen, and firefighters haven't been alone on the frontlines. Grocery clerks, janitors, cleaners, doormen, security officers, and airport workers have taken risks alongside them.
  • In return, they're seeking hazard pay, layoff protection and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

This pandemic has been the most harrowing experience of Margarita Restrepo's life.

A resident of Malden, Massachusetts, Restrepo has been a hospital cleaner for over 20 years. She's no stranger to sickness and death.

But she's never seen anything like the coronavirus.

"Patients are intubated and can't talk, but they're crying for help with their faces and eyes," she told Business Insider.

What makes matters worse, said the 60-year-old, is the isolation. Patients have been separated from their families and are wholly reliant on their medical teams.

"It's like they're pleading to not be abandoned," Restrepo said.

Restrepo works at a small hospital in Everett that oscillated between being overrun by COVID-19 patients and being fairly empty. It was chaotic in March and April, but things have since calmed down, she said.

Massachusetts has reported more than 87,900 coronavirus cases and at last 5,938 deaths as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Despite being surrounded by critically ill people and having to disinfect patients' rooms, Restrepo and her colleagues didn't ask to be kept at a safe distance from the virus. "I never felt fear," she said. "There was so much pain that we wanted to help, even if just by cleaning."

Medical workers in a Colorado hospital.

AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Image

That said, Restrepo added, it's "still a big deal to be working out here" in the midst of a highly contagious virus. And while some essential workers have received hazard pay in the form of bonuses or pay hikes, Restrepo wasn't among them.

She and other hospital cleaners like her should be earning more, she said. It's only fair, she argued, to compensate for them risking their health every day. There's also no protection from layoffs, which is nerve-wracking because the loss of her income would mean she and her husband could no longer afford to live in their home, she said.

"We've never felt the support of our government," she said. "We're disposable."

'They are in the line of fire day in and day out'

The $3 trillion HEROES Act was passed by the House of Representatives on May 15. The rescue package includes hazard pay for essential workers during the pandemic. That includes grocery clerks, janitors, delivery people, cleaners, doormen, security officers, and airport workers.

A Long Island Rail Road employee disinfects a train car.

Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images

"For these Americans, working at home is not an option. Social distancing is not an option. They are in the line of fire day in and day out," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters in April.

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) echoed the sentiment during a news conference earlier in May, calling for "solidarity" and for frontline workers to be treated "justly and fairly."

"These essential workers have put their own health at risk to perform their jobs," she said. "Congress cannot leave them behind in future legislative packages. We must work to ensure they receive essential pay, reflecting the health hazards and other challenges they confront from working during a pandemic."

Although Restrepo hasn't been exposed to the coronavirus at work, she belongs to the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which has lost over 100 members to the disease. The labor union has sent more than 100,000 messages to Congress since the pandemic began to march across the United States, according to the group's president, Kyle Bragg.

"Congress should do all it can to protect essential workers so they have full access to emergency relief like layoff protection, essential pay and personal protective equipment to avoid infection," he said.

When it comes to protection, Restrepo said that her team has been given the same PPE as medical workers. However, N95 respirators, which are meant to be single-use masks, are being cleaned and recycled.

Asked how long she's worn the same N95 mask, Restrepo replied: "It depends." They have to be "pretty damaged or soiled" to get a new one, so Restrepo recalled wearing the same mask for anywhere between one day and one week.

Employees say their jobs don't offer sufficient protection

Chanda Jones belongs to the same union as Restrepo but has had a vastly different experience.

The Brookline, Massachusetts-based university custodian recalled a meeting with two supervisors in mid-March during which they both had bad coughs. Two days later, her worst fears were confirmed when she learned that one of them had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Jones, 52, who lives with her 16-year-old daughter and diabetic fiancée, rushed to get screened for the disease.

"It's nerve-wracking that I could have the disease and come home to my family and give it to them," she told Business Insider. "It's a really scary situation. I wouldn't wish it on anybody."

It took seven days for Jones to find out the results — she was negative — but she spent those days in isolation. She woke up before everyone else to shower, disinfected every surface she touched, and cooked for herself. Not only did she want to protect her child, but also her partner, whose immune system is already severely compromised. 

"I can kill you," Jones remembered thinking.

A TSA officer wears a protective mask while screening travellers at Orlando International Airport.

Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Unfortunately, Jones said that taking those days off as she waited to hear if she had COVID-19 exhausted her sick leave. The experience was "a slap in the face" because she was neither given time off to self-quarantine nor hazard pay, she said.

"I felt hurt," she said upon realizing that the danger that she faces as a custodian didn't merit any safeguards from her employer. This felt particularly egregious, Jones said, because she'd worked without a face mask throughout March and even for part of April. And when they were finally given masks, they were the surgical kind, not N95s, she added.

Not all essential workers are treated the same

The highly contagious coronavirus is transmitted via respiratory droplets when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes. Jones described working without a face covering as constantly being on "pins and needles."

Even now, after her scare, Jones feels like she's on a "see-saw." She's tried telling herself to "snap out of it" but struggles to shake the fear because she doesn't know what she's breathing in or coming in contact with by way of her daily responsibilities.

Asked why she's working despite the threat of the virus, Jones said simply, "I must survive."

As the only one in her family who has a job, Jones is responsible for keeping a roof over their heads, ensuring that there's food on the table, and paying the bills. 

"If I got laid off, I could see us being homeless," she said. "We'd go hungry — I wouldn't be able to feed my kid. It's a very scary situation."

Security officer Franca Brown stands outside a pop-up food distribution hosted by Catholic Charities for community members impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in Brooklyn, New York, on May 8, 2020.

ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, firefighters, and policemen have been justifiably appreciated for their efforts during the pandemic, Jones said, but what about people like her who take out the trash, clean bathrooms, mop hallways, and stock shelves?

"I feel left out," she admitted. 

Jones asked the government and employers to accept the onus of taking care of their essential workers, which should include teaching them the correct way to wear face masks and remove gloves rather than leaving them to figure it all out themselves.

"It's not rocket science," she said. "We're all in this together."

'All of us need a paycheck that's equal to the risk we're taking'

Meanwhile, Joyce Phillips, who works as a security officer at a city agency in Manhattan, has felt as if she's been in danger every day of contracting the virus. 

"I'm scared because I'm not always able to keep the distance they recommend of six feet," said the New York resident.

People come in, sometimes annoyed, other times unmasked, and it's Phillips' job to limit the number of guests who enter the building and to keep everyone calm.

"I love my job so I'm here to do that," Phillips told Business Insider. "But it's been difficult. There's a risk that we're taking by working during this time."

With a team of around 30 security guards, Phillips said PPE has been in short supply because the pandemic caught everyone "off guard." In the weeks since the pandemic hit, the 58-year-old said they've been supplied surgical masks. 

All around her, people are losing their jobs, so despite currently being employed, Phillips is worried about staying that way through this "extremely uncertain time."

Her husband has retired and they're empty-nesters, so Phillips' job is "extremely important" for their survival, she said. After all, rent, bills, and healthcare costs need to be paid regardless of the pandemic.

But, Phillips stressed, the government should be backing essential workers and letting them know that their efforts are valued, be it through hazard pay, job protection or adequate supplies of PPE.

"I can't stay home," she said. "It's very important for me to have a paycheck, but all of us need a paycheck that's equal to the risk we're taking."

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