Being an Essential Worker in Boston

A utility worker in Boston shares their struggles being labeled essential.

Over the last few months, all of our lives have been shaped in fundamental ways by the current pandemic. Some of us are able to work from home. Some of us, worst of all, have lost our jobs and are navigating an unemployment system structurally designed to be inadequate in the best of times. And some of us, whose jobs are of a certain nature to make working from our homes and apartments impossible, are forced to go out into the pandemic stricken world to deal with coronavirus and face the door if we have a problem with it.

Many of those jobs are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, being hailed as “heroes” by their employers in order to shift attention away from any demands of hazard pay or PPE shortages. But there is a large variety of “essential services” that don’t involve directly combatting the pandemic but instead are still vital sectors of the economy.

I work providing essential infrastructure in the city of Boston. I won’t pretend that I have the worst time dealing with this pandemic like a health worker or sanitation worker. But I feel it is important to put my story out there so that in this time of social isolation, people know that we are experiencing much of the same things together.

In order to do my job, it is not possible to work from home. I have to be outside most days, often around the public. The mental stress of not being able to isolate myself without losing my employment in the backdrop of a recession has had extreme effects on my ability to sleep, which then exacerbates my rapidly declining ability to deal with other stressors in a downward spiral. For the first several weeks, my company lagged behind providing facemasks, and I had to make do with what I could improvise with and just hope I didn’t interact with anyone who was sick.

There has been no talk of hazard pay. In fact, quite the opposite as I fear that my job could be pulled out from under me as higher ups start to take more critical looks at payroll and expense reports. The only thing worse than working under the shadow of COVID is not getting paychecks under the shadow of COVID. If I lose my income, that throws my entire household into jeopardy once the rent comes due while I wait for unemployment to clear. Throw in the fact that for many people this has involved serious delays and it is a grim picture.

This pandemic has turned the social into anti-social. Instead of looking forward to conversations with passersby, each interaction becomes a potential infection point. Even though I eventually got a supply of PPE including masks, the mask and distancing discipline of others has been inconsistent. People walk up to you, assuming you have some sort of magic power as a visible face of a company, and do not view you as a human being able to be infected by you or infect you. On top of fears for personal safety, this pandemic is causing alienation in our social interactions. 

My company has not been the worst at holding back PPE. The delay was genuinely due to lagging supply instead of some desire to reduce pandemic costs by not buying supplies so in that aspect I am fortunate. This points to a failure of capitalism’s long term planning and vision. My company wanted to provide PPE but due to capitalism’s shortsightedness, the attitude of individual capitalists is almost moot. Pandemics have been a constant in human society. This is not even the first pandemic scare of our lifetimes if we think back to the SARS and Ebola scenarios, even if they did not reach this order of magnitude. The failure to plan for this potentiality speaks to the inability of capitalist systems to plan beyond an economic quarter. A state which prioritized human health would have had emergency stockpiles of PPE instead of letting the anarchic market buck under the production pressure.

Now, as if to emphasize how capitalist commodity production artificially inflates the social need of short term profits, the Massachusetts governor is speaking of reopening the state while we have one of the highest number of cases in the country. As the private sector screams in Baker’s ear about their bottom lines, Massachusetts plans on offering the working class on the altar of privatized profits and socialized deaths.