Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jake Douglas used to work as a driver for United Airlines’ catering service at Denver International Airport. Then the pandemic threw his life off course.
He chose to take a voluntary layoff, he said, “because my workplace isn’t safe. . . . We handle international trash every day, and my partner is immunocompromised. If I went to work, then she could get the disease from me and she could die. Both of us are laid off now.”
Douglas, along with other laid-off service workers in Denver, is pushing for a total cancellation of rent, mortgage, and utility payments, for at least the next ninety days. Although Denver has, like other cities, suspended evictions and stopped shutting off utilities for residents who cannot pay, Douglas noted that the city “hasn’t done anything to provide relief to renters or homeowners,” which means that the city might merely be delaying evictions rather than preventing them.
If rent isn’t cancelled, Douglas and his partner do not have enough saved to make rent in the coming months, and “neither of us can go outside to get jobs at the grocery store or anything like that, because the risk to my partner’s health is just too high.”
Grayson Landauer worked as a Starbucks barista until mid-March, when they were laid off and left to deal with their Type 1 diabetes without a stable source of income. “This crisis has been so scary for so many people,” they said. Not only are they burdened by the cost of the insulin they needs to survive, but they are also in a high-risk category for COVID-19.
Given their condition, Landauer added, “I don’t feel like I can go into work, even if I had a job available.”
Abby Harms, who has worked as a drag performer and sales clerk at a local board game store, has in the past few weeks seen all of her gigs cancelled and her retail job evaporate. She struggled to navigate the state’s unemployment application system, which has been overwhelmed by a surge in claims.
“It’s all very scary for me,” Harms said, noting that she is reluctant to seek another job amid the public-health crisis. “I have asthma,” she said, “and I don’t want to work at a crowded chain [supermarket] and risk catching coronavirus.”
Liam Buschel, who worked as a cook at the Denver ChopHouse at Denver International Airport, was laid off in late March, and is apprehensive about trying to get another job, he said, because his partner is also immunocompromised. In the final weeks of his job, he recalled, he was wracked with fear: “Every day, I went into work wondering, should I just stop going? Do I need to worry more about my health, or about my ability to make a living and make rent and buy food? And everyone at work is just making that same choice every day. Every day, are we choosing our health, or our ability to pay rent?”
Douglas, Buschel, Harms, and Landauer are now pressing the city government and Colorado Governor Jared Polis to waive rent and utilities bills for the next three months, and possibly longer, as needed. Their campaign, spearheaded by the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, has garnered support from city council members—culminating in a unanimously passed resolution in support of the rent cancellation proposal—as well as the Denver Area Labor Federation, UFCW Local 7, UNITE HERE Local 23, and the Colorado Working Families Party.
Incidentally, among the activists leading the campaign are several laid-off airport food-service workers who had been trying to unionize their workplaces with UNITE HERE when the COVID-19 crisis hit. While, their hopes for a union are now on ice, they are channeling their organizing energy into their campaign to keep renters housed.
“It doesn’t add up when you have people [who] have been laid off because of COVID-19,” said Edgar Vasquez, a fellow campaigner who just lost his job as a server at a local restaurant. “There should be some leniency.”
With another rent day, May 1, fast approaching, he said, “It’s just really sad to think that this is an epidemic, and you have these people [who] are not listening to that. They expect money, [but] that money can’t be given because there [are] no jobs.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.