Essential workers are serving our country during a pandemic. They deserve better pay and benefits

It is shameful that so many workers who are now deemed essential — bus drivers, custodians, grocery store workers — are some of the lowest-paid in our economy.

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A delivery driver loads his vehicle with groceries. Delivery orders have surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

A delivery driver loads his vehicle with groceries. Delivery orders have surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

AP Photo | Lynne Sladky

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages what is left of our tattered social safety net, some public leaders and CEO’s have shamefully used this global health crisis to exploit and scapegoat workers.

For example, Instacart workers were forced to walk off the job on Monday because the company has refused to provide hazard pay or paid sick leave.

Public school teachers today are scrambling to design online curricula, plan instruction, reach out to students and parents and try as best we can to schedule and conduct online classes in a district plagued by chronic resource shortages and the digital divide—even as teachers who are also parents try to manage their own children’s educational, physical and social needs.

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Healthcare workers who risk their lives every day to provide critical care to coronavirus patients have been told to make do with a completely insufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). Some retired nurses are even volunteering to rejoin the workforce in solidarity with their overworked younger colleagues.

The conditions faced by these and other workers are a powerful reminder that it’s not Rose Garden press conferences that will pull our nation out of this crisis, but the everyday courage and sacrifice of the working class.

It is shameful that so many workers who are now deemed essential — bus drivers, custodians, grocery store workers — are some of the lowest-paid in our economy. Other low-paid workers in the service industry, such as servers, were flat-out excluded from Chicago’s minimum wage increase last fall, even as they struggle for unemployment benefits now that bars and restaurants have closed their doors.

These workers are our students’ parents, and vital members of our school communities. They deserve better.

That’s why the CTU has joined SEIU Healthcare, grassroots groups that include United Working Families and Arise Chicago, and local and state legislators to support a broad platform of demands that support the right to recovery for all — including immediate housing for tens of thousands of homeless students and family members, 20 days of emergency paid sick leave, a moratorium on evictions and utility shut-offs, and an expansion of free medical care combined with medical debt forgiveness.

As CEOs and major corporations lobby Congress for billions of dollars in bailouts, they will claim that corporations need a safety net because corporations make the economy run. When these elites claim “sacrifices must be made,” they’re inevitably talking about ordinary workers — including employees with hard-won social safety net programs like workers’ rights, health care and pensions — not the 1 percent.

Where is the safety net for the Instacart worker who delivers groceries to chemotherapy survivors and other immunocompromised individuals? Where is the safety net for the CTA workers, who worked without a contract for years while the Rahm Emanuel administration stalled? Where is the safety net for the grocery store clerks whose employers opposed even five days of paid sick leave, much less the 20 days recommended by public health experts?

Indeed, there is little evidence to suggest that even with a massive federal bailout, CEOs would make decisions in the interest of the common good. We need look no further than General Electric, which plans to lay off thousands of workers in its aviation manufacturing division, despite a Congressional proposal to provide $50 billion in federal assistance and $25 billion in loans and temporary tax relief to the aviation industry.

In response, union workers at GE plants in Massachusetts and Kansas offered to turn their tremendous manufacturing capacity towards the project of making much-needed ventilators for hospitals around the country.

Workers in Chicago and around the country are — or, as in the example of GE, could be —providing desperately needed services at a moment in our lifetimes when the call to serve has never been greater. Healthcare workers are saving lives. Teachers are finding ways to teach students from afar while organizing food drives and diaper donations for undocumented families. Grocery store workers, Instacart shoppers, and Amazon delivery drivers are keeping us all fed and supplied. CTA operators are making sure that essential workers can still get to work.

The idea that these workers should forfeit their basic rights and protections — in some cases secured by a hard-won union contract, in other cases denied by years of union-busting — is morally reprehensible. Time and time again, we’ve seen CEOs and mega-corporations deny their employees a basic safety net — healthcare, paid sick leave, hazard pay — while being the first in line for a safety net for their own profits.

As we face down this global crisis, we must not repeat the same pattern again. In order to support struggling families, workers need more protections and public rights — not fewer.

Jesse Sharkey is CTU president, Stacy Davis Gates is CTU vice president, Christel Williams Hayes is CTU recording secretary, and Maria Moreno is CTU financial secretary.

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