America's Pandemic Workers

5 months ago 39
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As COVID-19 surged in the United States and only those deemed "essential workers" were asked to go to work, the pandemic made clear that the workers most critical to American life are disproportionately people of colour, and the country's lowest-paid.

Through video diaries and interviews shared over the course of several months, four of these workers shared their experiences of the pandemic in a country that offers little in the way of a safety net for its most vulnerable workers.

Two gig economy workers struggle to protect themselves from the virus and earn enough to sustain their families. An Amazon worker organises in his workplace to demand more from the company, and a first responder fights to save lives amid wrenching death tolls.

For some companies, the coronavirus has meant booming business - like Shipt, a Target-owned service where independent contractors shop for customers who do not want to or are unable to go to the store. Target's same-day services, which include Shipt, grew 278 percent during the first quarter of 2020.

But gig workers at Shipt organised a protest in April to call for hazard pay and safety protections. Ashley, a San Antonio mother who shops with Shipt, called the protective equipment eventually provided by the company "a joke". Shipt declined our request for an interview and directed us to two Shipt web pages, accessible here and here.

At the behemoth Amazon, sales went up 26 percent in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the previous year. The company went on a hiring spree, bringing on 175,000 new people during the pandemic.

Amazon workers like Christian Zamarron in Chicago were busier than ever. But he and his coworkers organised a series of walkouts after hearing about others in the company testing positive for COVID-19. They demanded Amazon shut down its warehouse until the company could guarantee it was sanitised and safe for workers to return. Amazon did not give Fault Lines an interview, but instead sent us a statement.

Elsewhere, other gig workers saw their work dry up - like Ali Razak in Philadelphia, a father driving for Uber and Lyft and president of the Philadelphia Drivers Union. Like others in the gig economy who are independent contractors, Razak is responsible for all his own overhead costs, like the lease on his car, insurance, gas, and maintenance. That saves companies like Uber and Lyft money, but leaves workers like Razak having to foot the mounting bills on their own.

For Anthony Almojera, a New York City lieutenant paramedic, going to work each day meant facing 16-hour shifts and an overwhelming number of COVID-19 deaths alongside an inexperienced workforce. The vice president of his union, Uniformed EMS Officers Union Local 3621, Almojera said low salaries have made it difficult for emergency medical services in New York City to retain workers beyond a few years.

Just as coronavirus cases began to slow, hundreds of thousands of Americans left their homes and flooded the streets in a wave of civic actions demanding an end to police violence and racism. Fault Lines follows four Americans as they keep working through the spread of a novel virus, in an uncertain and changing country.

Fault Lines would like to extend a special thank you to the four participants in this story who filmed themselves during an unusual and challenging time.

Amazon Statement:

By Rachael Lighty, Amazon spokesperson, to Fault Lines

"Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees and we are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site. We expect to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives to get products to customers and keep employees safe. This includes spending more than $800 million in the first half of the year on COVID-19 safety measures, including implementing over 150 significant process changes - from enhanced cleaning and social distancing measures to new efforts like disinfectant spraying. We've also distributed personal protective gear, such as masks and gloves for our employees, and implemented temperature checks across our operations worldwide."

"To thank employees and help meet increased demand, we've paid our team and partners nearly $800 million extra since COVID-19 started while continuing to offer full benefits from day one of employment. With demand stabilized, next month we'll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour. We're proud that our minimum wage is more than what most others offer even after their temporary increases in recent months, and we hope they'll do the right thing for the long term and bring their minimum pay closer to ours."

Source: Al Jazeera

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