Working on The Frontline

One in a Series of Articles from the Spring J322 Reporting Public Issues Course

When students in J322 (Reporting Public Issues) transitioned to online learning, one student expressed concern that she had planned to write the best piece of her college career this semester and it would no longer be possible by reporting remotely. Attitudes quickly changed to, “We’ve got this!” And they did. On the final day, that student said she did submit the finest piece – so far – of her college career. The J322 series of articles showcases students' work during this unique moment in history.

The threat of the novel COVID-19 brought work home for most Americans. However, for essential employees, working from the comfort of home is not an option.

Caregiver at Richmond State Supported Living Center, Obed Iworie, says the past few weeks have been nothing short of a nightmare.

“Going to work is scary,” said Iworie. “You are scared to touch individuals, doors; you don't know what to do because all you have are gloves and hand sanitizer.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott instituted a stay-at-home order last month that encouraged individuals in Texas who were not “essential” workers to stay home. According to a CDC COVID-19 report, essential workers include those who work in service industries that are required to stay open during the pandemic, such as restaurant and grocery store workers, janitors and waste management workers, and hospital staff. But that report outlined an alarming issue as well—the majority of those essential workers are minorities.

For those like Iworie who are deemed essential workers, staying home and safe is not an option. While the coronavirus affects everyone, it affects minorities more than others. According to Andy Tate, representative of the Austin City Equity Office, nearly a quarter of employed Hispanic and black or African American workers are employed in service industry jobs compared to 16% of non-Hispanic whites.

Iworie says he was required to come to work every single day, even when his workplace ran out of equipment to keep him safe. A week later, he began having coronavirus symptoms and since Iworie lives with his elderly father, he asked to be tested.

“Some people just do these jobs because they have families, so they can't just quit,” said Iworie. “They just do it and pray they don't contract disease.”

Although his test came back negative for the coronavirus, Iworie said his symptoms persisted and he requested to go home. After a week at home, Iworie received a letter telling him that he was fired for refusing to come to work while sick.

For minority workers, the threat of this pandemic goes beyond the current situation. The CDC reports that historic and institutional health care inadequacies predispose this particular group to higher mortality rates from this virus. In Boston, the ACLU reported that the highest concentration of coronavirus cases were in minority essential workers and subsequently their communities.

Not only do minorities make up the majority of frontline workers during this pandemic, they are also being denied COVID-19 tests.

A team of doctors at the universities of Virginia and Pittsburgh, used data from seven states and more than 103 hospital groups and patient advocacy networks to show that thousands of minority patients were not receiving testing for the coronavirus despite showing symptoms.

For minority workers, knowing that they may be denied testing adds a whole new layer of stress during an already difficult time.

“I feel stressed out cause it's like we are at risk at work, but then, I could also risk my roommates’ lives,” said Angela Bonilla, a part-time HEB worker. “It’s like hard to do your job well, and when you live with other people, you have to be like extra careful.”

Kenny Igbaroola, a Nigerian immigrant, works as a rehab nurse at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Katy and deals with COVID-19 patients in recovery on a daily basis. Igbaroola says she has to take extra precautions to keep herself, her three children and husband healthy.

“Like when I come home, I come through the garage and I actually take off everything on me. You know, and stick it right inside the washer with a hot, hot water, very hot water,” said Igbaroola. “I usually use antiviral, antibacterial wipes to clean underneath my shoes too. I have to keep my family safe.”

As there is no scheduled end to this pandemic, the government has begun taking steps to compensate essential workers for the added risk to their jobs. According to a press release on April 13, several Democrats including Sen. Elizabeth Warren are pushing for legislation to give essential workers hazard pay and expanded leave and telework.

"Essential workers are the backbone of our nation's response to coronavirus," Warren said in a press release. "We have a responsibility to make sure essential workers have the protections they need, the rights they are entitled to, and the compensation they deserve.”

Several companies have already begun offering hazard pay to their employees. Bonilla says HEB increased each worker's hourly pay rate by $2 if they chose to continue working through the pandemic.

“It's like good seeing extra money,” said Bonilla. “They're seeing how important we are so hopefully that leads more to the discussion on the importance of us minorities in the workforce and raising the minimum wage.”

While hospitals like Memorial Herman have also offered hazard compensation to their workers, Igbaroola says what these essential workers need is not just money.

“I really feel like if there's anybody or any governing body that can actually cater to the mental health of these workers,” said Igbaroola. “It would really be a great thing because it's not easy for anybody.”

Dinah Chukwu
J322 Student