The names in this article have been changed.
The American economy is in trouble. We’re experiencing the worst downturn since the Great Recession. Although the number of applications for unemployment is slowly falling, it’s still at a historic high. Experts fear we’re facing a “jobless recovery,” in which certain industries simply never come back, forcing workers to change careers. This would significantly slow the economic growth we so desperately need.
And the pandemic is far from over. With the colder weather, people are moving their gatherings indoors, and new cases are on the rise. We are apparently facing a choice between physical and financial safety. It seems like a no-brainer: the value of human life cannot be quantified. Although most readers will agree with that statement, the question becomes: how do we protect human life? Is it better to lock down the country, or to empower people to make the money they need to survive? American decision-makers don’t seem to realize that this is a false dichotomy. Without financial stability, working class people face dire consequences.
In nearly 8 months of isolation, it’s become easy to think of these decisions in theoretical terms. With caution fatigue comes exhausted complacency. To humanize the problem, I decided to interview workers who have been directly affected by the economic aspects of this crisis.
Toby: “Just Existing is a Risk”
Toby is an artist. He’s currently doing gig work, building a cabinet here, painting a mural there, taking every commission he can get his hands on. In some ways, his work is steadier than it was before the pandemic. People are hungry for things to look forward to, and beautiful art is relatively safe. What’s more, Toby charges lower rates for skilled labor than a union construction worker might. At one of his gigs, the owners have been working on a remodel for some time, and they had to let their contractor go when the pandemic hit. “I’m not a scab,” he told me; he’s friends with that contractor, and received his blessing to take over earlier this year.
Toby normally works 80 hours a week. He was able to make time for our conversation while quarantining after he was exposed to COVID. He couldn’t access a rapid testing site covered by Medicaid, so he had to wait several days for results. During that time, he lost over a quarter of his monthly income. He’s paid hourly. Although his work was waiting for him, there’s no way to recover the money he lost.
“I’m already kind of taking risks just by existing,” he told me. “There’s always been some kind of risk with every choice I’ve ever made. I need to make a living…I was broke when this started, and I’ve got people that I’m responsible for.”
Because he didn’t lose taxable income at the start of the pandemic, Toby didn’t receive any money from the government stimulus. He’s painfully aware that many Americans spent the summer living off unemployment while he was struggling to make ends meet.
I asked if he feels safe at work right now. “It depends on the day,” he told me. He tries to be as careful as possible, and his pod outside of work contains just two other people. But some of his gigs are in public places. Earlier this month, he was doing construction in a store, and overheard a customer say he was just there killing time before his appointment to get a COVID test. Even when Toby’s employers take adequate precautions, there’s no way to account for everyone’s behavior.
By asking hourly and gig workers to expose themselves, we put their lives and livelihoods at risk. While they continue to work, and the economy appears to recover, their ability to participate in it is severely undermined. Toby believes that we’re deepening the class divide; not only financially, but also socially and ideologically. People staying home are quiet and terrified, often shaming those they see not taking the same precautions. Their fear is both warranted and aggressive. Physical isolation from the working class is undermining their empathy and deepening disdain.
The people who are still going to work, on the other hand, are living in the world. Unsafe though it is out there, they’re seeing each other, building community, and finding ways to let off steam. The prevailing attitude is one of nihilistic joy. If the very act of survival puts you at such a high risk, you might as well enjoy the ride.
To some degree, all Americans are taught that our income is the best measure of our worth as human beings. That narrative is even more extreme for working class people. Financially stable workers have the luxury of mindfulness; they can take days off, cultivate hobbies, and remember that living means more than survival. People working upwards of 80 hours a week simply don’t have the time to think in those terms. While they know that there’s more to living than just surviving, life’s pleasures are often out of reach. In these desperate times, we have to find reasons to keep going other than paying rent and affording groceries. So working class people are taking risks. “[My work in unsafe environments] affords me a certain type of privilege,” Toby said.
Despite the daily economic struggle he faces, I was struck by his overwhelming gratitude. He is surviving this crisis with relentless compassion and a wholehearted commitment to his community. He’s not just struggling to survive; he’s working hard to improve his situation so he can support the people around him. He seems to see this economic disparity as a call to action. It’s time to get our priorities straight. We need each other, now more than ever.
Viv: “Behind the Barricade”
Toby introduced me to his friend Viv, a long-time sex worker. Her industry has changed dramatically since March. She’s lost some clients due to quarantine, received requests from potential new clients who she says “just don’t take the pandemic seriously,” and built closer relationships with those who have a compatible level of acceptable risk. Even as her pod gets smaller, she says her experiences in this time are “…wild. Just insane. Not in a bad way, I think, but it’s weird out there.”
Just days after George Floyd’s death, she spent an evening with a client in his high rise apartment. Parking on the street outside, her car was the only one for several blocks. The entire neighborhood, which normally has a lot of foot traffic, was silent. Upstairs in his minimalist loft, the two of them sipped whiskey and ordered dinner to be delivered. He went down to pick it up while she sat on the balcony, overlooking quiet back streets, texting friends she knew were gearing up to go to the protests. A few minutes later, her client came back to the apartment, looking windswept despite the warm spring weather. “He told me there was a police barricade downstairs. Full riot gear, all of it.” On the video chat, I see her close her eyes as she shakes her head, still in disbelief at the memory. “This is what I’m doing. How is this what I’m doing? How dare I be safe right now? My friends are out there. And here I am, behind the barricade, not even watching it happen.”
Viv clearly feels guilty about her relative financial stability, but also grateful to be employed. She tells me that her job has been “one of the best parts” of 2020. “It’s this…paradox. I figure as long as I can be the one holding it down, I can help people, I can be doing something. But I’m kind of losing it. We’re all so alone right now, and sometimes I get scared I’m gonna get stuck on the wrong side and forget why I’m here at all.”
As a working class person who caters to the elite, Viv is an expert at code-switching. Even while we chat, her vernacular fluctuates between that of her immediate community and that of her clientele. “The government has a duty of care, but they don’t care about anyone. They’re playing us. And we can’t do sh*t about it.” I can see she feels torn between these two communities, obligated to both and unable to turn her back on either one. I asked her if she feels this crisis has been divisive between the social classes.
Yes and no, she tells me. When Chicago went into lockdown, she says, the Black Lives Matter protests were fueled by our newly flexible schedules. People had time to be in the streets without fear of missing work and losing income. “Now that we’re opening up, we’re all making rent again, there’s still some solidarity. But now we’re all too busy to go out there together. Hell, I was even busier in March, it was great. I got to help my people. Now I barely see them.” She says that work is inherently divisive, keeping poor people in close proximity with their employers instead of each other. The crises of this past summer made it impossible for the upper class to ignore the struggles of their employees, and people of all backgrounds started having frank conversations about social justice. But she fears that, as we settle into a new normal, that momentum will dissipate.
Eleanor: “Specifically and Intentionally Classist”
Viv made the point that people need free time in order to be effective activists. Eleanor’s situation brought that home for me. She is a stage manager, and with theatres closed nationwide, she’s been out of work since March 15th. She describes herself as a “traditional Marxist,” and has been passionate about politics all her life. Now, with more time on her hands, she’s able to recommit to the fight for social justice. As a caretaker for her family, she’s been taking social distancing very seriously, but there’s plenty to do online. “I easily get 50 emails a day from political groups,” she said. Isolated though she is, Eleanor believes that this is an opportunity for the social classes to find more common ground.
Her fierce determination is nothing short of inspiring. When I asked what issues she’s writing to her senators about, she quickly rattled off “I write about the proposed relief package, about relief specific for artists and arts workers, about judicial nominees, about all presidential nominees, about impeachment for various executive branch members, about criminal justice reform, about [defunding] the police, about universal healthcare, about the abuse of protestors, about USPS, about abortion access, about trans and non-binary rights, commenting on the NLRB rule changes, about budget cuts to social services, about pipelines, about changes to the Environmental Protection Act, about national parks…I write and/or sign petitions everyday. So many petitions.” She also referred to “BIPOC and immigration” issues that she cares about. Although she said this work is exhausting, she gave no indication of planning to step back from the fight.
Through all her many passions, Eleanor has one clear focus: economic relief for the working class. She holds onto hope that the crucible of 2020 will reveal the problems with our current system. People in her community are becoming more aware of politics, starting to back up their assertions with credible sources, and finally discussing class disparity.
For her, the lines between the social classes are nuanced, but nevertheless clearly drawn. She sees different demographics of working class people turning on each other, getting distracted from the bigger issues. “They have [us] screaming at each other about in-person schools, pitting [essential workers] that can’t afford childcare against those who want their kids to stay home.”
I asked her whether she believes the way we’re handling the pandemic is classist. Unlike Toby and Viv, she spoke about high-level decisions and philosophical trends instead of interpersonal relationships. “Yes it is, both specifically and intentionally,” she told me. She cited the government’s emphasis on “saving the economy” rather than helping people directly. Our current administration seems to care more about its own bottom line than the safety of most Americans.
Justice is an Essential Service
The events of this year have taught us a great deal about what it means for a service to be essential. Workers in certain industries — notably food and agriculture, healthcare, energy, water management, and public transit — are often overworked and underpaid. The government has failed to provide them with adequate protections in the midst of the pandemic. Nearly 70% of these workers do not have college degrees. Because of that, we once referred to them as “unskilled labor.” It’s become clear that this term is both inaccurate and deeply disrespectful.
Training and skill are not synonymous. Put a computer programmer in a customer service position and see how easily they can spend the day dealing with complaints. Tell a doctor to do backbreaking labor in a field, and compare their efficiency to that of a migrant farm worker. Our most vulnerable communities — minorities, working class and poor people, and especially BIPOC — are not only receiving inadequate support; their health and safety are being actively undermined.
Most importantly, people working these low-paying jobs lack the option to stay home. Their work keeps the world turning, and they do not have savings to fall back on. Entrepreneur Howard Barbanel, quoted in the New York Times, said it best: “This is a white-collar quarantine.”
This “pandemic vs. economy” mindset is dividing our country. Exit polls from the presidential election show that those who prioritized COVID-safety overwhelmingly voted for Biden, while those who cared more about the economy voted for Trump. This aggressive partisanship makes it nearly impossible to solve either problem.
As COVID cases reach another record high, it’s clear that the crisis is far from over. But COVID didn’t cause this class divide. The events of this year have simply laid bare the economic disparity that has always existed. If America is going to survive this, we must begin by supporting our most vulnerable communities.