S. E. Williams |
Jordan Anthony, a 30-year-old resident of Highland, California started 2020 with a dream. He decided to take his chances as an entrepreneur by taking his modest savings and investing it in himself.
With a passion for music and an eye for contemporary style, Anthony gave up his nine-to-five and devoted his efforts and savings to creating and promoting his music and the creating and marketing of his own line of casual clothing. For Anthony, the future was full of promise.
But the COVID-19 pandemic washed over his dreams like a tidal wave that comes ashore with minimal if any warning and carries away those caught off guard. Yes, he followed the news, saw the signs but like most Americans never imagined a virus in faraway China, would ultimately have such a devastating impact on all aspects of American life.
Anthony kept things afloat for a while but within a few short months, came to terms with a hard reality— his entrepreneurial dream must wait.
His savings account nearly depleted, Anthony swallowed his pride, regrouped and went in search of a job. An experienced warehouse worker, he hoped finding a warehouse job would be easy.
“I started looking for employment in July 2020. I tried applying directly with a couple of warehouses but that did not work out,” shared Anthony. “So, I went to an employment agency, and they were able to place me right away.”
According to Anthony, the agency never reviewed any information regarding COVID-19 safety precautions with him nor did it require him to test for COVID-19 before sending him out to a job. “All they told me was to wear my mask and stay safe.”
Over time, Anthony dealt with more than one local job placement agency in the inland region and moved from one temporary warehouse placement opportunity to another overtime. Each experience was the same—no specific safety information was provided to him by the employment agencies regarding COVID-19 precautions and no specific requirements were made of him beyond being told to wear a mask when he reported to the job site.
Things were not much different when Anthony reported to work at the various warehouse(s). “For the most part everything was the same as it was when I worked in warehouses before the pandemic,” he explained. “The only difference [this time] was I was initially advised to, ‘Wear your mask.’ Some warehouses would check temperatures, but that was it.”
According to Anthony, there were no periodic safety announcements about COVID-19. He never noticed any posters or printed resource information about the virus, where to go for testing, or what to do if you felt ill.
He knew he was basically on his own regarding COVID-19 safety on the job. “I kept it in the back of my mind—to protect myself. I wore my mask. When I punched the time clock or if I touched a handle or something, I took precautions. I carried and used my own sanitizer and washed my hands when I could.”
“If a co-worker contracted COVID-19 the only way I learned about it was through word of mouth from other employees,” he explained. The employers never notified employees who may have had close contact with any person who fell ill with the virus. There was never any formal announcement encouraging workers to get tested.
Although Anthony believes employees should know how to handle him/herself in these situations, he also feels strongly, “The employer should have some concern for their employees.”
The Toll COVID-19 Has Taken
Although COVID-19 did not discriminate, it laid bare the disparities of generations of racist social and economic policies which left minority communities vulnerable to the pandemic’s devastation. It has resulted in more than 50,000 Black Americans—many in California–dead. APM Research Lab data shows Blacks were twice as likely as Whites to die from the virus.
In addition to comorbidities like high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. which left many African Americans more vulnerable to COVID-19, limited access to health care, multi-generational households, and a host of other factors also contributed. Another key factor making Blacks susceptible to the virus was exposure—many, like Anthony, did not have the option of working from home.
Early in the pandemic on March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued an Executive Order directing all residents to immediately heed state public health directives to stay home.
The order however exempted those involved in “essential critical infrastructure” sectors which included everything from health care, logistics and transportation to manufacturing, agriculture and food services, among other service-centered jobs.
When the crisis hit, Black workers in particular, according to an Urban Institute Report, were disproportionately represented in many of the jobs considered “essential.” As a result, one might assume Blacks would not experience the job losses almost certain to result from the continuing pandemic. That assumption proved false.
Just previous to the onset of the pandemic the unemployment rate among Blacks, though still double that of Whites, was at its lowest rate in recent history but that changed with the onset of the pandemic. Although Blacks were overrepresented in those “essential” jobs and according to analysis by the Rand Corporation which showed a similar rate of Black and White workers being permanently laid off—a higher percentage of White workers remained employed compared to Blacks.
“Killed in Action”
COVID-19 deaths recently surpassed an unfathomable four million deaths worldwide with more than 607,000 of those deaths having occurred in the United States, including nearly 64,000 in California and just shy of 9,450 deaths in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties combined. As the nation’s death toll climbed, losses in the Black community were searing.
An analysis of health data by UC Merced revealed essential workers across 10 industries in the state experienced a 30 percent increase in deaths between March and December 2020. This increase occurred among those between the ages of 18- to 65-years when compared to the same time-period in 2019. Were this a military conflict versus a war against an invisible virus, those who lost their lives on the frontline would be considered “killed in action.” There is, however, no category for frontline/essential workers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the COVID-19 conflict.
These industries included warehousing, farming, bars, food processing, wholesale trade, restaurants/food services, nursing care, landscaping, grocery, building services (including security).
The percent increase equated to 14,370 additional lives lost among workers in these industries. Closer analysis revealed 87 percent of those deaths were experienced among low-wage, essential workers.
Jobs with the highest increase in deaths in descending order included warehousing, agriculture, bars, food processing, wholesale trade, restaurants/food service, nursing care, landscaping, grocery, and building services.
The warehouse industry alone saw an alarming 57 percent increase in deaths between March and December 2020. This appears to validate Anthony’s concern about the need for employees to take responsibility for their own precautions and for employers to be held more accountable for COVID-19 safety in relation to their employees. “The employer should put safety information out there [and monitor for compliance] because there are people out there who don’t take precautions,” Anthony declared adamantly.
“I’m not anti-social at work but I keep my distance from others whenever possible. Everyone is required to wear a mask, but some people put it below their noses, or their masks are on but their mouths are visible. I just kept my distance from them. They [supervisors/companies] expect people to wear their masks, but they don’t push the agenda.”
On June 21, Cal OSHA issued revised COVID-19 Prevention Emergency Temporary Standards that addressed masking, distancing, and other issues, however these were upgrades to existing emergency standards implemented in 2020, however based on Anthony’s experience it appears—unless businesses inspect what they expect—such standards have limited impact if they are not adhered to with diligence.
Anthony said he chose logistics during the peak of the pandemic because he thought he would find employment more quickly. He was right. “At that time a lot of people were getting unemployment pay, but warehouses needed workers. There was a demand. They even started raising the pay rate. They increased wages and offered more money. They [warehouse jobs] were/are the highest paying jobs former minimum wage workers could find,” he offered, explaining the comparison between what had been $14 to $15 an hour jobs to jobs that were suddenly paying $18 to $20 per hour.
Because Blacks were disproportionately employed in many of the jobs considered “essential,” it seemed to suggest their job losses during the pandemic might be less dramatic than during other periods of crisis in the nation’s history. That proved not to be the case.
Early in 2020 before the onset of the pandemic, the unemployment rate among Black workers –though still double that of Whites–was at its lowest rate ever. But that changed with the onset of the pandemic. Although Blacks were overrepresented in essential jobs—and according to analysis by the Rand Corporation showing a similar rate of Black and White workers were permanently laid off—a higher percentage of White workers remained employed compared to Black workers..
Transitions Among Employed Workers by Race, March–April
Many of those on the frontline who braved the risk of COVID-19 to help maintain continuity of services in these and other areas were Black.
As we tell and retell the stories of the worst days of the 2020 pandemic, the voices of Black workers are critical to understanding the scope of their experiences and the breadth and depth of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact in their lives.
COVID-19 did not discriminate but the institutional and systemic racial disparities over which the virus spread its funeral pall were ripe for its exploitation.
By every measure, persistent social and a history of injustices were laid bare in relation to Blacks and other minorities during the COVID-19 pandemic including disparities in health status, access to health care, employment, wages, housing, criminal justice and poverty. All of this left them more susceptible to the virus both economically and physically according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Anthony was certified on a variety of equipment used in warehouses. This possibly made it easier for him to be placed in temporary positions than others.
Early in 2021 he grew tired of worrying about exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, studied and earned his commercial driver’s license and other licensing requirements. He now works as a long-haul trucker. He worries less about being exposed to COVID-19 at work since most of his days are spent in the truck cab with a partner versus a warehouse full of other employees.
Reflecting on his work experience during the worst of the pandemic in 2020, Anthony declared. “There was never a time I felt I was protected because of stuff they did. I felt protected because of the stuff I did and how I moved [in the work space].”
This story is presented in partnership with the Southern California Black Workers Hub. Essential Stories is a movement-building advocacy campaign created to uplift the voices and experiences of Black workers in California. You are invited and encouraged to follow this link and share your story.
Stephanie Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. Stephanie has won awards for both her column and investigative reporting. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments. or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.