Health-care workers, who comprise 20 percent of the frontline workers in the U.S., show the biggest rate of COVID-19 infection. Credit: Jodie Covington / Unsplash

Anna Romina Guevarra is the founding director and associate professor of Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. She is an award-winning author on race, labor, and migration, and an expert witness on asylum cases.

“I survived.” This is how Dorotea Espina describes her life in the U.S. Dorotea left her dental practice and her five children in the Philippines more than 30 years ago to come work in the U.S. as a low-wage worker, joining the thousands of Filipinos who work here as caregivers and send money to their families back home. She is now 80 years old, having done this “essential” care work for 33 years. It is only now, during the current pandemic, that she has stopped working—temporarily, she emphasizes—for fear of becoming ill. As she knows, she literally cannot afford to fall sick. She has no social safety net here in the U.S.; she is her own safety net—and her family’s. She has survived, but barely. Her story calls on us to consider what kind of society necessitates an endless participation in exploitative labor. At the age of 80, who cares for her?

This is the same question that drove workers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 and the International Nurses Association (INA) to mount a historic strike in Chicago last month and emerge victorious. Calling for sufficient protective equipment, a living wage, safe staffing levels, and an end to job privatization, they, too, called for a recognition of their labor and sacrifices, and demanded that they receive the same kind of care that they have devoted to the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health). Kanita Greer, a 53-year-old Black woman who has worked as a building service worker for UI Health for 20 years and was earning only $13.34 an hour, said at an SEIU press conference, When I am at work I get praises all day long about how wonderful I am, how much they appreciate me . . . But what I really need . . . [is] enough money to maintain and take care of my family.” Following this strike, all Chicago workers like Kanita will now earn at least $15 an hour and receive increases in wages and differentials; other victories include protections against the outsourcing of jobs, and bilingual pay for all hospital workers who do the work of interpretation, translation, and sign language.

What Dorotea and Kanita fundamentally call into question is what it means to be an “essential worker.” Essential for whom or what? Their experiences and their demands push for the need to reframe—and radically re-orient—how we perceive what makes workers essential. Workers are “essential” for the economy and the workplaces that depend on their labor; they are essential, but disposable in this context. Importantly, they are also essential to their families and the communities to which they belong. While workers fuel the health-care, food-service, transportation, and agricultural sectors of the economy, they are also parents and family members whose labor is essential for their family’s survival. They are essential, but they are not disposable to their families. As SEIU Local 73 president Dian Palmer said after their victorious strike: “[The workers] have always been essential to the patients and the students they served. Now they will begin to receive the respect, protections, and pay they deserve.”

In the aftermath of the pandemic, state and federal agencies classified essential services—and workers—needed to maintain critical operations and functions and ensure that Americans have the basic necessities for everyday functioning and survival. Yet, these are the same workers who are disproportionately getting infected or dying. At the peak of the pandemic in April, according to the United Food and Commercial International Union (UFCW), more than 11,000 workers were infected or exposed, and health-care workers, who comprise 20 percent of the frontline workers in the U.S., show the biggest rate of COVID-19 infection. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control reports that to date, approximately 162,328 health-care personnel have been infected by COVID-19, and more than 700 have died. These risks are disproportionately high in the U.S. relative to other industrialized wealthy countries, given the inadequate and finite supply of PPEs provided to frontline workers. Additionally, hospitals are currently ill-equipped for handling fatal airborne pathogens in the wake of President Trump’s cancellation of federal regulations that would have set up infectious disease standards for preparing and protecting workers.

Coupled with these mortality rates, the disposability of frontline workers is also evident in the wages that they earn and the lack of hazard pay. Studies have shown that the household median income of essential and frontline workers is less than $40,000, and less than a third of essential workers are receiving extra compensation or hazard pay. The national median income for home care workers is $25,280, and more than half of them rely on some form of public assistance.

The pandemic has revealed that essential work is racialized and, therefore, the disposability of essential workers is part and parcel of this construction. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), more than 40 percent of frontline workers are Black, Latinx, and/or Asian/Pacific Islanders, and about one in six are immigrants—many of whom are overrepresented as janitors and building cleaners, maids, housekeepers, and home health aides. Thus, by virtue of their overrepresentation in these occupations, people of color are also disproportionately affected by and are at higher risk of contracting, and in many cases, dying from, COVID-19 infection. Recent months have made clear the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities, including the escalating rates of infection, deaths, and unemployment among Black and Latinx essential workers and immigrant and undocumented workers, including Filipino nurses and Latinx agricultural workers. Asian communities who are often perceived as “model minorities” who do not work in frontline occupations are included in this picture. In fact, approximately 1.4 million Asian American and Pacific Islander health-care workers make up 8.5 percent of all essential/frontline workers, and almost 1 million of them are immigrants. 

Employers and the general public recognize the importance of workers on the frontline of this pandemic, and some workplaces have even made concerted efforts to create safe working conditions. However, the lived experiences of workers like Dorotea and Kanita reveal that as long as the discourse of “essential workers” is oriented toward the economy and profit, rather than to principles of equity and workers’ quality of life, the exploitation of workers will continue. As SEIU Local 73 leaders like Alicia Uwumarogie cautioned during their September 24 press conference, “Just because we are announcing victory today, this does not mean that the fight is over… We will continue fighting until justice, fairness, equity, and respect become the standard at UIC.”

Indeed, we must reorient the discourse of “essential workers” to one that champions an ethic of care that sees labor as intimately connected with life; a reorientation that values workers not only for their labor but for the lives that they are living. All workers are entitled to work with dignity and to have a social safety net that allows them to not just survive but also thrive. Caregivers and domestic workers deserve paid sick leave. When the SEIU and INA workers called for being recognized as “essential, not disposable,” they were challenging the fundamental logics of capitalism that measure their value based solely on their contributions to an economy that sees them merely as disposable cogs in a capitalist machine. 

They are essential—yes. But they are not disposable—certainly not to their families and those who care for them.   v