Cohen, Fernandez: Essential workers risking their lives amid COVID-19 deserve better wages and protections
Jose Luis Perez, owner of Mendoza's Taqueria in San Jose, is pictured in this file photo.

Last year we called workers essential. This year let’s treat them like they are.

The pandemic has made clear what we’ve known for a long time: the most important jobs in our society aren’t the billionaire investors and corporate executives. Rather, we rely most on the people whose labor keeps our society running: the farmworkers, grocery clerks and delivery drivers who supply our food; the nurses, doctors and health aides who care for us when we get sick; those who keep our lights on, our water running and our garbage removed.

Yet it’s also exposed how poorly the corporations who profit from this essential work treat the people providing these services. Most of these jobs pay low wages and lack basic benefits like health insurance and enough paid sick days. Especially in a place with living costs as high as Silicon Valley, this meager return for vital labor left thousands of families — even before COVID-19 — struggling to afford the bare necessities and crowding together to make rent.

Now, the choices made by these corporations mean essential workers face both the highest risk of exposure to the virus, and living situations where it’s hard to isolate and avoid infection. The result? The overwhelmingly Brown and Black communities home to the most essential workers have been hit the hardest. Over half of all COVID-19 cases in the county are among Latino residents, even though they are only a quarter of the population. And compared to the overall death rate, African Americans are 1.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Yet as workers risk their lives and lose their loved ones, these corporations have made huge windfalls. In the first nine months of 2020, McDonald’s made $2.9 billion in profits, while thousands of small locally-owned restaurants were forced out of business. Amazon had its most profitable year ever in 2020, making founder Jeff Bezos the richest person ever in modern history. This is what structural racism looks like: people of color — often left without proper safety precautions — die for low pay, while their work pumps up the stock portfolios of (predominantly white and male) CEOs and top investors.

It’s time we insist those corporations provide the people doing essential work with respect, family-supporting wages, adequate protective gear and paid sick days, and the other basics we all need in our jobs. Already, we are seeing some promising steps. This week, Santa Clara County will consider requiring large grocery stores, pharmacies and fast food chains to provide $5/hour in additional “hazard pay” for the people risking infection to provide us with food and medicine. In the city of San Jose, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez is suggesting a similar proposal.

The City Council and Board of Supervisors should move on these policies without delay. At the same time, we know there’s much more we must do to get through this pandemic and move forward together. We must do what we can locally to overcome misinformation and get our communities — particularly those like East San Jose and Gilroy that are bearing the brunt of the virus —  vaccinated as quickly and equitably as possible. We must address the “eviction time-bomb” that threatens to push thousands of families out of their homes when current eviction moratoriums expire and back rent comes due. We must make sure that when businesses can reopen, longtime workers have the opportunity to return to their jobs.

We cannot simply return to a system — one rooted in legacies of white supremacy and racialized capitalism — that was broken for so many in our community. We cannot leave our future in the hands of corporations that have shown over and over again they will put profits before health, justice and democracy. Rather than going back, we must move ahead with a vision led and shaped by essential workers and our families and communities. They are the ones carrying us through this pandemic, and whose leadership can carry us forward. A worker-led recovery will be a top priority for both our organizations in the coming months.

This is a moment of both great hope and great peril. We have a new president, a vaccine that is being rolled out and elected majorities at our county and cities committed to tackling the many challenges facing working people. At the same time, we’re in a dark winter of spiking infection rates, new virus strains and economic hardship that is crippling families and small businesses.

From the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve said that we’ll pull through by pulling together. We must adopt that spirit as we respond to this moment and shape a future for our region where essential work is rewarded fairly, where families have safe and affordable places to live and where we all have a voice in the political decisions that shape our lives.

Jean Cohen is the executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, which represents over 100,0000 workers in Santa Clara County. Maria Noel Fernandez is the campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising, a campaign led by a coalition of labor, community, housing and faith organizations that’s shaping a tech economy that works for everyone.

Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA, which runs the Silicon Valley Rising campaign, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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