There will be nothing leisurely about this Labor Day for many working families, not least for essential workers. Those who are lucky enough to have a job face the double bind of fearing the risk of COVID-19 and being laid off. Trump has deemed them essential enough to risk their own lives, and those of their families, yet not worth a penny extra for their sacrifice and service. These men and women have been critical to keeping our economy afloat, yet denied critical benefits necessary to protect them in the process.
If Labor Day is a temperature check of our nation’s workforce, record-breaking income inequality is an indicator that speaks for itself. Here in the backyard of our nation’s capital, workers at National Airport and George Mason University are at one end of that spectrum. For the few who are still working at the airport, hours have been reduced so dramatically that some workers worry about being able to feed their families and becoming homeless. Living among them, on the other end of the spectrum aren’t just some of the wealthiest in the nation, but the very Trump officials who are culpable for these miserable circumstances, not to mention Trump’s campaign headquarters.
Making miserable circumstances even worse yet, at least 70 of these airport workers were exposed to COVID-19 because of the outbreak at an Alexandria church in early August. Because passenger service workers lack meaningful benefits, these workers may face insurmountable economic pressure to come to work when they may pose a risk to themselves and others.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists airport workers among the most vulnerable workers to a pandemic like COVID-19, Trump’s denial about the danger of COVID-19 and failure to develop adequate testing continues to cause Americans to become infected and die needlessly.
As Americans consider the risk of flying during a pandemic with great trepidation, Biden’s plan to make paid leave and free testing more widely available would be vital to keeping airport workers and passengers much safer. It would also help instill the confidence necessary to get the public back to the airport and get them up and running again.
The overwhelming majority of essential workers, not just at the airport but also at GMU are immigrants and people of color who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The contracted non-union janitors, who aren’t highly paid to begin with, do dangerous, life-saving work to disinfect GMU hallways, sinks, bathrooms, and floors during the COVID pandemic. Recently, one of the janitors was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Like so many non-union low-wage workers, contracted janitors at the school allege that they have been threatened, interrogated and surveilled in retaliation for legally protected union activity to try and improve their jobs. Their Unfair Labor Practice charge was filed with the National Labor Relations Board, full of Trump appointees who are business-friendly and have issued decisions making it harder for people doing essential, underpaid work to form unions, including fast food, gig, and homecare workers.
In addition, contracted GMU janitors have been given bad checks or checks for less than what they believe they are owed. Their employer may also be illegally paying them as independent contractors instead of direct employees, meaning they’re not covered by laws that protect workers, such as minimum wage and overtime. This also allows the company to avoid paying workers compensation, social security, unemployment, and other payroll taxes. Sadly, they have little to fear considering they’re in good company with Trump's Labor Department that happens to protect many employers that violate various wage laws.
Labor Day, 2020 offers a grave warning of just how much is at stake this November. The outcome of this election will either cost or save lives during a continuing pandemic, and either push working families into or save them from financial ruin. Biden’s expansion of unemployment would be a life-saving parachute to rescue Americans pushed off a financial cliff by the current President, while expanded healthcare capacity and affordable treatment would save countless lives. It would be shortsighted for voters in Northern Virginia to see only blue skies ahead considering the Commonwealth’s red status isn’t so far behind us.
Jaime Contreras is Vice President of 32BJ SEIU, which represents over 175,000 workers along the East Coast, including nearly 7,000 throughout Northern Virginia among the 20,000 in the D.C. area.