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 email@example.com
Food service and retail workers in North Carolina, organizing with NC Raise Up, the local chapter of the Fight for $15, are on strike today after being deemed “essential workers” yet treated as anything but. Jamila Allen, who works at regional fast food chain Freddy’s, told me she’s striking, “Because we need healthcare for everybody.”
At Freddy’s, she said, only the drive-through is currently open and the workers have been given some cleaning supplies, but she’s heard from others that they’re being denied the basics. It’s been a year since she’s been part of the Raise Up campaign, and she worries about family members without access to healthcare. “Paid sick leave is also something that we need,” she said. “Not just the coronavirus but if somebody just gets a cold or the flu or whatever, they have to be out of a job with no pay.”
Other workers, she said, have had their time cut back—she’s one of the longest-standing workers at her store, so she is essential, but others are losing hours, which means losing money. The drive-through remains busy, she said. “A lot of people are still coming but a lot of those people might have the virus. They might be scared of me because a lot of people keep their windows rolled up every day. I have to touch money every day. Even though I might have gloves, a lot of people touch money. That’s the part that really scares me.” She also worries about using public transit in this time. “I ride the bus. Just in case somebody has the coronavirus, they don’t know that they have it, they touch something on the bus and I have to get on the bus and then go to work with my co-workers and other people in the drive-through.”
Bertha Bradley has been working in food service for decades, currently at a local chain called The Dog House and before that at Wendy’s. A customer of hers actually gave her a medical mask to wear on the job and her boss told her she couldn’t wear it. “He said that would intimidate the customers.” Yet a customer had given her the mask.
“We were telling them they’re standing less than six feet in front of us and leaning into the window to give us their orders. And then we’ve got this exhaust fan on, which is pulling in the air so it’s more likely we can get the virus from them. They’re more a danger to us than we are to them.”
She noted, “You know what my sanitizer’s made of? Clorox and water.”
Working in the time of pandemic, she said, has been,
really rough. We don’t get paid sick time. We don’t have the proper protection that we really need. It’s just like they’re only worried about making their money. I work with a lady that’s 67 years old. I’m 60 myself, so we’re the old women who work in this place and it’s like they’re not concerned about our safety. They’re more concerned about making a dollar. It’s other places as well that I talk to other workers in other fields like fast food restaurants, at McDonald’s and Burger King. They’re telling me they going through the same thing.
When I asked when she decided to go on strike, Bradley laughed. “I decided forty years ago to strike whenever I could.” She grew serious, though. “This one here, this one really touches the heart. The world is in quarantine basically and they’re not taking it seriously. They call me an essential worker, what’s so essential about me getting sick with no healthcare? They’re not out there serving the hot dogs, serving the burgers and stuff. We are.”
“We’re nobody when it’s not essential. We’re just workers. they could care less about us if this virus wasn’t out here,” she continued. “They could do better by us than they’re doing but they don’t seem to care. I don’t get health benefits. I don’t get sick time. I don’t get paid vacations. I don’t get living wage. So what do they want from me? What more would they do? If I die right now their business is still going to go.”
Bradley wound up with a call to other workers to join the action: “I want people to know here in Durham, North Carolina, we’ve got to keep striking. We’ve got to strike around the world. We need to strike more than today. We need to strike every day. We need to shut it down, that’s what I want people to know, and let them know we are not just essential workers, we are humans. Let’s shut it down.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.