Belabored Stories: Who Counts as Essential?

Belabored Stories: Who Counts as Essential?

“Do they plan to just keep replacing people as they get sick, quit in fear or burnout, get quarantined, self-isolate, or die off over the coming weeks or even months?”

Read more of our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here.

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


As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, it’s increasingly clear that for many in business and government, working people are worth only what we can contribute to the accumulation of profits; if we’re not productive, we’re expendable. While many are forced to stay home and worry about how to pay the bills, others are forced to work longer and harder in newly dangerous conditions. Since the crisis began, we at Belabored have been hearing from more of you than ever, and so we plan to bring you an ongoing series of short stories about what workers are facing during the crisis. You can as always send us your stories at or to Michelle or Sarah individually, and we’ll share them here.

Last week, I heard from a Pennsylvania state worker doing public-facing work in the crisis and classified as “essential,” even when the governor ruled that “non-life-sustaining” businesses must close. This worker was worried about their work in what they described as “the kind of open-office call-center floor plan that nobody wants to work in while fearing for a deadly and highly contagious disease like coronavirus, much less with about eighty people in one room.”

The vast majority of their work, they said, “can be completed on phone and online, and what little face-to-face interaction there was surely wouldn’t be wanted now.” Yet they were told that working remotely was not an option.

I figured there might be a transition time before we too, like other departments, could get home equipment. I thought for sure since it’s the government, they’ll have some mitigation put in place in the meantime. My friend’s job, which has to be done in person, they took the temperature of everyone entering and had alcohol wipes and masks available. But when I arrived to work I found no new rules, no guidance from anyone, everybody close together, people moving about the office from one end of the room to the other, people sharing party food, and several people coughing, one uncontrollably at one point. No changes at all.

They continued,

Nobody with symptoms is asked to go home because some people don’t have any time left to take. We haven’t been promised any additional sick time for if we exhibit symptoms, and certainly no hazard pay for staying there with other people who have them. So the people most likely to be working right now are the people with such disabilities and serious health conditions that they already have very little PTO banked, and they’re even more determined not to lose the job and the health insurance. I don’t feel guilty for wanting to live. I’m human, not just a resource. Not just a number.

The worker described buying their own sanitizer and other safety equipment, and being told that they had to work because,

Lives depend on it. I don’t know if lives depend on it. We process food stamps and Medicaid applications and renewals, which sounds quite serious, and it is quite serious, but in reality, we are there as gatekeepers, to make sure people who don’t qualify don’t get them. It’s called means testing. The job involves a lot of turning people down as ineligible or reducing their benefits or shutting them off. If the government wants to help people in this disaster, they don’t have to keep people from benefits like this, they can just give everybody benefits who needs them while we’re in this crisis. I know because I read about it in the news about exactly that happening other places. It’s a global pandemic after all.

They noted, “I have read the reports, not just the sound bites, and I know this danger is unlikely to pass within a couple weeks. We need long-term mitigation. Do they plan to just keep replacing people as they get sick, quit in fear or burnout, get quarantined, self-isolate, or die off over the coming weeks or even months?”

The worker, a union member, reported,

The union negotiated what they called a compromise to halve the occupants in the room, but that still leaves a lot of people and pretty close to each other. Nobody mentioned anything about fixing the ventilation system. My cube mates and I get each other sick all the time, and I still have to sit with one of them. That’s if they’re not sick by tomorrow since several people are already sick, home isolating or waiting for test results with fevers and symptoms.

Dissent reached out to the Pennsylvania human services department and will update this post if we receive a response. Meanwhile, the worker concluded:

“Other states made benefits auto-renew and sent their workers to shelter in place to flatten the curve. What’s different here? Maybe if they explained it to me I would understand why I should be eager to sacrifice myself for some reason other than just the government’s lack of technical capabilities.”

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.