Low-wage workers ‘first to suffer’ in economic collapse, Catholic labor advocates say 

Denver, Colo., Apr 9, 2020 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Amid the dramatic collapse of the American labor market, Catholic labor advocates have called for a collaborative response that protects the weakest and advances the common good.

“I would argue that in our job structure the person who would look lowest is the most important,” Father Sinclair Oubre, spiritual moderator of the Catholic Labor Network, told CNA.

“Think coronavirus in the hospital. It’s not the doctor who is most important, it is the custodian who kills the germs and kills the staph and kills all those things that gets people sick in the hospital,” he added. “If that person isn't there, I don't care how good the doctor is or how great the nurses are. That will be a death house because of the infectious diseases allowed to persist.”

The Catholic Labor Network helps advance Catholic social teaching on labor and work and aims to support workers.

As authorities across the country have ordered people to stay at home and placed other restrictions on businesses, millions have been laid off.

More than 16 million Americans have submitted initial unemployment claims in the last three weeks, and many economists predict that unemployment could eventually exceed the 25% peak of the Great Depression.

Many prospective applicants for unemployment benefits report they have been unsuccessful at filing claims, as state agencies face a surge in applicants, while dealing with the logistics and safety measures intended to help reduce the spread of the contagious disease.

Oubre reflected on the economic situation.

“We’ve based our economy on the service sector. The service sector is just being devastated,” he said.

Receptionists, waiters, busboys and dishwashers are all out of work. While some restaurants are still doing take-out food their customers are significantly less in number, as are the bills and the tips.

Industry has also been heavily hit by pandemic shutdown. Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, told CNA that even though work continues in areas like construction, construction workers rarely have employer-paid health insurance.

This means families are dependent for health coverage on a now-furloughed or out-of-work spouse who worked in a hotel or a store, Sinyai said.

Health care workers are “truly on the front lines” and risking disease and sometimes death, as some hospitals in the worst-hit areas face a surge in patients, Oubre said. At the same time, emergency orders to cancel elective surgeries to free up protective equipment and other resources for medical workers have caused medical workers involved in these surgeries to face layoffs.

Oubre who is also pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Orange, Texas, said labor unions are concerned about the economic health of their members, and also want to secure workers’ basic safety and protection from contagion.

Usually companies follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards requiring gloves, masks, goggles and hardhats, but with the pandemic needs have now shifted.

“All of a sudden it’s not just a respiratory mask to prevent inhaling dust as you’re grinding on metal or chipping away rust,” said Oubre. “Now it’s other types of masks, or more masks, just when you're interacting with the people you work with along the way.”

Some sectors have seen a need for workers, including pharmacy work, online delivery, and grocery delivery. Walmart and Amazon are seeking tens of thousands of people.

Oubre noted that workers like those at Amazon warehouses must ask themselves “How do I know that everyone here has not been exposed?”

Hundreds of employees interact with warehouse technology and stored products. They interact with each other, sometimes not being able to keep at the recommended physical distance. These warehouse and delivery systems need “an incredibly efficient progress” and are very vulnerable to any inefficiencies, in Oubre's analysis.

He voiced concerns that Amazon has a history of opposing labor rights, to the point of alleged violations of laws protecting labor organizers.

After workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse tested positive for COVID-19, about 100 workers walked off the job March 31 to demand better safety protections. One employee who helped organize the walkout was fired: Chris Smalls, a former assistant manager. According to Newsweek, Smalls claims the company is misrepresenting the number of workers known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The company rejects Smalls' claim and said that Smalls was fired for violating social distancing requirements needed because of his close contact with a person confirmed to have had coronavirus.

Amazon’s founder, billionaire Jeff Bezos, has become one of the richest men in the world.

Workers at Whole Foods, the 95,000-employee grocery store chain owned by Amazon, held a sick-out on March 31, saying they should have more sick pay and more health protections during the pandemic, Bloomberg News reports.

Organizers  have said the store should shut down any store where a worker tests positive for the virus. They have sought paid leave for workers who choose to self-isolate, health care coverage for part-time employees, and funds for testing and treatment of sick co-workers. In January the company had dropped health care benefits for part-time employees who work under 30 hours a week.

The company has given temporary raises of $2 per hour through April and overtime compensation. It said employees put in quarantine or diagnosed with the new coronavirus are eligible for paid sick leave.

Workers for Instacart, a grocery delivery company, held a strike March 30, seeking better protections and hazard pay of $5 per order. About 200,000 contract workers run grocery deliveries for the startup, which has seen a 150% surge in order volume over last year.

Instacart’s response included an announcement of plans to distribute health and safety supplies to its full-service workers and a new default system for tipping on its app, claiming this would make tips higher and more consistent. The company said it already instituted retroactive sick pay for its in-store workers affected by the coronavirus. Hourly workers could receive bonuses between $25 and $200, NBC News reports.

For Sinyai, the labor network’s executive director, the coronavirus pandemic shows that low-income workers are “often the last to benefit in good times and the first to suffer in hard times.”

“Those who continue to work and draw a paycheck are disproportionately drawn from the ranks of white-collar workers who can often do their jobs online; firms lay off line workers before they lay off managers. In contrast, those who work with their hands are usually unable to work from home. This crisis has brought mass unemployment to retail workers, hotel workers, airline employees and restaurant servers and cooks.”

Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” of March 27 made a special mention of those working under the threat of the coronavirus, saying:

“It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”

Sinyai said that Pope Francis' words recall those who “soldier on during the crisis, enabling the rest of us to shelter in place.”

“These people remain at great risk of infection, illness and death so that we may live,” he said. “It’s shameful that OSHA has not yet issued an emergency workplace safety standard protecting workers from unnecessary risk during the pandemic.”

Obure appreciated that the Pope involved everyone, “from the doctors down to the cleaning people.”

“It’s all the people working and interacting together to get through this thing,” he said. “It’s when we divide ourselves up and not reach out that we really get in danger.”

“We really have two choices; we can either hunker down in our houses and hope that we survive this or we can, even in the physical distancing law that we are in, take action,” he added.

Oubre invoked the example of a Vietnamese-American woman who normally works as a crab distributor, buying 5,000 pounds of crabs per day from the crabbers. She has now pivoted to making masks and giving them away to Fr. Oubre and his staff.

“She’s thinking seriously: how can she help her brothers and sisters,” he said. “They’re not medical-grade quality, but they will give us something that we can then exercise greater precaution.”

Oubre mentioned a local manufacturer who normally makes industrial strength insulation, but now is working to retool to produce face protections and medical-grade masks. Besides helping the pandemic response, the retooling will help his employees return to work.

Even with the difficulties of physical distancing, Oubre said, building community is the way for workers and the unemployed to advocate for themselves.

In his view, labor has suffered in recent decades not only because of legislation, but because of “radical individualism.”

“I think because of our radical individual thinking as Americans, it’s hard for us to say ‘I will sacrifice for myself so that my brothers and sisters will have more’ even though that is a fundamental idea of solidarity within trade unionism and our Catholic social teaching,” Oubre told CNA.

Catholic social teaching's promotion of the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity all have roles to play, Oubre summarized.

“Solidarity is being concerned for our brothers and sisters. It’s not just pulling up the draw bridge and hunkering down for ourselves,” he said. “Promoting the common good is constantly a concern, because (the coronavirus) threatens the whole common good, not a class of people or a type of people.”

While some people are demanding federal government action, Oubre said, “fundamentally it comes down to how we handle this at the lowest level. Although the government is going to have a very important role to play… it's going to be how we act in Orange, Texas, or some other place that determines how long this thing is actually going to last.”

At the same time, Oubre was worried that restrictions might be lifted too soon.

“The dangers are clear: we could just have a second wave. We'll be right back into it,” he said.

Sinyai said people with some abundance and without fear of hunger, eviction or foreclosure must be prepared to sacrifice, adding “America’s low-income workers deserve both our prayers and our financial support as they rebuild their lives, careers and savings in the aftermath of the epidemic.”

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  1. Jesus said we will always have poor. It is not for Cesar to feed the poor. It is the responsibility for the Catholic Church to feed the poor.

    • Greg,
      And just from my personal experience with labor unions, I don’t think they really have the workers’ interests at heart anyway.

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