“I’ve been in health care for over 15 years,” says Anne Campbell. “I started in a doctor’s office, then went to an emergency room. From there, I went to an ambulance in North Carolina. When I moved to Orlando, I went back to an emergency room. I love health care. I love what I do, and I love helping people. Until now, I never questioned my job and my safety.”
“My hospital is being diligent about equipment and trying to stay on top of it,” Campbell continues. “However, let’s be honest, it doesn’t seem to matter. If it’s going to get you, it’s going to get you. Health care as a whole wasn’t ready for COVID-19. We just weren’t. The world wasn’t.”
As an emergency room technician, Campbell makes less than $15 an hour, and she relies on every paycheck to keep her and her two children sheltered and fed. “I’m a single mom,” she says. “I leave the hospital and come home to two teenagers in a tiny house, where separation can’t happen, as they share a room. I’m bringing my germs from that night into my home. I’m risking my life to save others, yes, but it’s not appreciated. I can’t even take a leave of absence to keep myself and my kids safe, because it excludes hospitals. I’m stuck. I’m going in daily, risking my life and my children’s lives for pennies. I’m scared. I’m anxious. I cry nonstop. It’s hard. What can I do? Absolutely nothing. I’m backed into a wall and can’t go anywhere.”
So, in a desperate plea for help, Campbell created a GoFundMe, begging for donations so she can quit her job and ride out the coronavirus pandemic with her kids in the safety of their home. Her situation is becoming increasingly familiar as the coronavirus outbreak pushes forward. While some medical professionals — particularly high-level employees, like doctors and nurses — are being relocated to hotels and second homes to isolate from loved ones, many frontliners live in constant fear of their own lives, and the lives of family members they reside with.
But with bills to pay, many have no other option except to keep going into work, pandemic or otherwise. Accordingly, GoFundMe has become something of a hub for essential workers who are hoping to crowdfund a safe departure from their jobs. “I, like everyone else, have bills to pay,” writes Nikki Dowell, a grocery store merchandiser, on her GoFundMe, which is aptly titled, “Help Me Quit My Job.” “I also need insurance to be able to get heart surgery. Yes, I have a heart condition. If I’m to be exposed to contracting this virus, I want it to be MY choice.”
Dowell concedes to me that she was “drunk” while creating her GoFundMe, but the sentiment stands: She feels unsafe at her purportedly “essential” grocery store job, she wants out and she wants to be able to afford leaving.
Indeed, the coronavirus is killing grocery store workers — among other essential workers — around the country, and the compensation these workers receive is, frankly, laughable compared to the risk they take by going into work each day. A 27-year-old grocery store clerk from Maryland recently passed away from the coronavirus, and her last paycheck was for a measly $20.64.
While many of these workplaces claim to be taking measures to ensure the safety of their employees, not only are some of those claims false, but masks and gloves only go so far. “By not assuming everyone walking through the door is positive, we’re putting ourselves at risk,” Campbell emphasizes. “We take temperatures and whatnot, but we’re seeing it’s not the same old symptoms with everyone. Abdominal pain is huge, as is diarrhea with no other symptoms. We’re also seeing there’s no age. It’s everyone, even those with no previous history. This virus is very puzzling.”
With more than 22 million Americans unemployed in the four weeks since President Trump declared a national emergency, the suggestion that anyone lucky enough to still have a job is a victim might be hard for some to grasp. But just as distance-shaming people crowding in public as they attempt to navigate a whole new world with a whole new set of rules is unhelpful, so is arguing about who’s more of a victim in a situation where people are being forced to choose — if they even have the choice — between working minimum wage and potentially dying in a pandemic, or staying safe at home, but not knowing where their next paycheck is coming from. Many of these workers are, for all intents and purposes, being forced to work against their will in an unprecedented situation, caught between putting food on the table and exposing themselves and their families to a deadly virus.
My girlfriend is one of these employees. She works at a specialty retailer of hard surface flooring, which was looped in with hardware stores as an essential business. Prior to qualifying as an essential business, they announced paid leave to cover their employees during closures, which she was relieved to hear. But when they were deemed essential, that went out the window.
Scared of contracting the coronavirus, my girlfriend has been on an unpaid leave from work for the past few weeks, as have several of her fellow employees. She was never laid off or furloughed, which would require her company to cover at least some of her unemployment costs. Fortunately, foregoing a paycheck or two was manageable for us, but seeing as the coronavirus has developed into a sustained crisis, talk of her going back to work has become unavoidable, as silly as it may sound to risk transmission so she can shell out tile in the midst of a pandemic. But what other option do we have?
Many have been arguing that essential workers would be better off receiving unemployment, but again, that requires they be laid off or furloughed. “As I sit in my Manhattan apartment day after day during this crazy time in our lives, I hear cheering and the banging of pots at 7 p.m. to celebrate the essential workers,” says Hazel Simpson, who created a GoFundMe to provide financial aid for underpaid essential workers in the Manhattan area. “At first, I thought, ‘Wow, isn’t that nice?’ But as it continued day after day, I thought, ‘Wow, this is unfair.’ These people have to go outside and risk their own life and the lives of their families when people who’ve been laid off or furloughed are making an extra $600 a week. Not only that, but those workers who are deemed essential already have low-paying jobs.”
Admittedly, the situation with unemployment is a little more complex than just that. Yes, under the recent stimulus package, many states increased their unemployment payments by $600 of federal cash. In California, for example, the maximum state unemployment payment was previously $450 per week, and when you add the extra $600, that comes to a weekly unemployment payout of $1,050. The current minimum wage rate in California is $12 an hour, which means, before taxes, minimum wage workers make only $520 in a 40-hour working week — less than half of the maximum amount you can make on unemployment in California right now.
This is the case in some other states, too, and when this news came to light, social media erupted with frustration. “Okay, so now we have a problem, Mr. Governor Andrew Cuomo,” one Facebook post concerning the matter begins [sic]. “Non-essential people get to file for unemployment and make two to three times more than normal. The average worker bringing home $250 to $350 a week would be sitting at home getting $900 a week while us essential workers are at risk, putting our lives on the line to provide for our families to make the same we always make. How does that work? How do you send non-essential people home and pay them more — like not a little more, but way more? Guess being an essential worker isn’t all that great after all.”
Fact-checking website PolitiFact ran the numbers on this Facebook post and concluded, “This dynamic only applies to some workers who have modest incomes. For four months, from April through July of 2020, unemployed people are eligible for $600-per-week federal bonuses that, in some cases, can double or nearly triple what they earned on the job.” In other words, if you can get it, unemployment really is a better deal for a large number of people — those with “modest incomes” — momentarily at least.
But as an essential worker, those extra benefits float over your head as you hope, every day, that those eight hours of minimum wage work were worth being possibly infected by the coronavirus. It should be no surprise, then, as we often see in times of crisis, that these terrified, frequently ignored workers are flocking to GoFundMe to beg for help when their companies and the government refuses to lend a hand. Yet during a time when everyone is imperiled — except for billionaires and millionaires — whether any of these desperate workers will receive the crowdfunding they need to stay home seems unlikely. As Campbell says of her campaign, which has been up for almost two weeks now, “No one’s donated.”