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COVID-19 and the Violence of Employment

    “I tie a scarf around my hair, then put my mask on. I mess with the mask less that way, so I’m not touching my face. I really don’t wanna get it, I’m 61, I’m in a high risk group.” My mom’s warehouse job pays fourteen dollars an hour. “I want to quit but I need the insurance, I’m too young to retire.” I recall this conversation when White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett remarks “our human capital stock is ready to get back to work,” a phrase in which every idea is a malignant lie. I swallow the fear, think “Mom’s healthy, physically fit for her age, eats right.” If she gets the virus it won’t be her first employee injury, or even her first in 2020. She broke a bone at work earlier this year. When I was little she wore a back brace from another accident at a warehouse job. Workers were already unsafe pre-pandemic.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows 5 occupational injuries or illnesses for every 100 warehouse workers in 2018, and 2,834,500 total US occupational injuries or illnesses. Employee injuries are dramatically underreported too, especially for low-waged workers of color and immigrants, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP also reports the US is at a 45 year low for federal workplace safety inspectors, with fewer Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worksite inspections under Trump than under either Bush or Obama. Decreasing inspections increases dangerous conditions. NELP says “worker safety and health is in crisis today.” 

    In important respects COVID-19 intensifies pre-existing patterns. Employment forces many people to decide between a chance of physical harm or a certainty of financial harm, a cruel choice exacerbated by flat pay and insecure employment. Structural racism and sexism aggravate these ugly situations for many people.

    Employment’s concrete dangers contrast with political and legal abstractions like “re-opening” the economy. For many the economy never closed. The World Economic Forum estimates only 29% of Americans can work from home. “Re-open” is an Orwellism for imposing work by refusing to mitigate economic necessity. Many Americans want the opposite. In April, of two thousand people surveyed by management consulting firm Qualtrics, two thirds said they do not feel comfortable going to work. The Department of Labor and its state-level analogs forbid people to collect unemployment benefits if they quit due to infection fears. This financially compels people to take health risks - “re-open,” indeed.

While the BLS helpfully collects injury statistics, abstract data can make us forget that behind the numbers are human beings with names, faces, and loved ones. As I discuss in my book, Injury Impoverished, capitalism has long inflicted injury and death on working class people while erasing the injured and dead from public reckoning and refusing to treat these harms as fundamentally political. Again and again, law and policy encourage people to ignore to what historian James Schmidt rightly calls “industrial violence.” The specific abstractions that facilitate these processes have changed. The social patterns have not.

    “There will be more death,” President Trump said in a May interview about the economy “re-opening” when the dead already numbered in six figures, with many more injured and at risk. While labor historians know working class people are often treated as disposable, for the powerful to openly consider sending workers to die right now is disturbing.

    We may never know know how many people died of COVID-19, let alone how many caught the virus at work, but it’s a lot. In The Abusable Past this May, Diego Ortúzar and Ángela Vergara surveyed COVID-19 occupational hazards. Fan-Yun Lan and others confirmed their dire findings in a May study in the journal PLOS One, saying “work-related transmission” and “occupational infections are considerable.” Newspapers have run multiple articles about people infected at work and others afraid of getting sick but who need the paycheck. In one widely reported story, Jose Andrade Garcia, employed for over two decades at a meatpacking plant owned by JBS in Marshalltown, Iowa, died just a week before retiring. It’s heartbreaking. So are the many stories we’ll never hear.

    Exposure to COVID-19 is workplace violence. The virus is a weapon wielded by employers and the government. As the numbers of their victims grow, once again the pandemic presents an intensified version of longstanding patterns: the unnerving truth is that workers like my mom are on their own. (I wrote this some time in 2020, I no longer remember exactly when. It appeared in the 2020/2021 issue of the LAWCHA newsletter.)

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