Opinion: Don’t kill those who are carrying the economy

Recently I struck up a conversation with a group of women who work at an extended-stay hotel here in Colorado Springs. Curious about employment during this pandemic — when people aren’t traveling as much, and more than 26 million Americans are unemployed — I asked if their work has slowed down since this crisis began.

“Oh yes, we’re just pitching in to help out cause we want to come back [when business picks up],” one said. They continue to clean and sanitize guest rooms, but based on their expressions, I wondered whether they are even being paid right now. Yet they are putting themselves and their families at risk; there are some social distancing measures in place, but there didn’t appear to be any protective gear available.

Add these women to the list of essential workers across the state and nation — grocery store workers, bus drivers, gas station clerks, ride share drivers and fast food workers — who never had the option to work from home. Yet our entire society depends on these exposed and vulnerable workers. Many make minimum wage, or just a few dollars more (and I hope this really resonates when it’s time to vote for another minimum wage increase).

There is no hazard pay for many of these workers, and limited (if any) sick leave or paid time off, even though the importance of their work grows daily.

As we navigate this pandemic, we are going to continue seeing disproportionate consequences of the COVID-19 crisis among low-income and working-class people, particularly black and Latinx Americans who are overrepresented in these categories.

[pullquote-1] Here in Colorado, data released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows that COVID-19 is spreading among people of color — black, Hispanic and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander — in greater proportions than white people, relative to their share of the population. Last week, Gov. Jared Polis announced a new task force to study racial disparities among those infected and killed by COVID-19. Let’s hope this task force takes action.

Now is the time to seize momentum to create more equitable outcomes during and after the pandemic. We are all in this crisis together, but similar to the HIV/AIDS crisis, people of color are still bearing the brunt of exposure and mortality rates. It’s unacceptable.

People of color and low-wage workers must be taken into consideration as governors across the country decide how and when to reopen their states. Opening without a specific plan to address COVID-19’s disproportionate effects on communities of color is like signing a death warrant. In response to Georgia’s decision last week to reopen its economy — and as other states that have not yet “flattened the curve” followed suit — CNN political commentator Van Jones says, “It’s a death sentence for communities of color that are on the front lines of this thing already and have the least ability to deal with it.”

People continue to die as the crisis grows even more politicized. Yet protesters claim stay-at-home orders are an infringement on their “freedoms.”

The rest of America can learn from leaders in New York, which to date has lost more than 16,000 people to COVID-19. New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a call to action that we need to think about marginalized communities when we implement testing and tracking of the disease, and we need to be sure those communities are receiving accurate and timely information. Those are just some of the ways we can prioritize people of color as we reopen our economies.

“Lastly,” James said, “more is needed to protect our essential workers... It is imperative that we also think long-term about tackling inequality head-on and ensuring that universal health care access is a right, not a privilege.”