News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

May 14, 2020

For workers and parents at Highland Hospital, race and gender distribute Covid-19 burdens unevenly

By Ruwi Shaikh

When London Breed and other leaders around the Bay Area announced a shelter-in-place order, the working class was immediately and severely impacted. The state recommended that everyone work from home in order to control the spread of the virus. However, the essential workers still had to show up and had to figure out how to balance family and life responsibilities without any safety net at the same time. 

Healthcare workers like Naomi Dawson, who lives in Oakland with her child and husband, are bearing the brunt of this crisis (her name has been changed in this article at her request). Her team continued to show up to the office at Oakland’s only public hospital, Highland, even though their work could easily be completed from home. Meanwhile her bosses began to work from home as soon as the shelter-in-place order began. 

With her kid out of school, Naomi immediately faced a serious quandary familiar to millions of workers across the state how to provide childcare while she had to be at work every day. Alameda Health System (AHS), the agency that oversees Highland hospital, did suggest a childcare option but Naomi quickly learned it wasn’t the help she was promised. 

“Well, no, I don’t have childcare right now,” she said. “The company is supposedly providing some sort of provision for childcare programs that they found, which is rather expensive and we’re still working out the kinks. And also, the places that I found that they were offering us are not really convenient to where I actually work.” In this way, AHS is able to claim it is helping essential workers with childcare, while offering options that are out of reach for most.

Additionally, Naomi has not been given time to evaluate the childcare options and does not want to hand her child off to just anyone. “Whenever you find or look for childcare for your child,” she said, “you don’t just … drop them off. They need to be vetted right? You need to be able to go there, get that feeling, and figure that out.”

The disruption in school and work has left women like Naomi in charge of balancing this pandemic: one that threatens to put more “unseen” labor on them than ever before. Women of color are further impacted because they’re also more likely to hold low-paying but “essential” occupations such as childcare, nursing, social work, teaching, and food service. The burden of working an undervalued and underpaid job, coupled with growing responsibilities at home due to the pandemic, has left many women feeling like they are working non-stop.  

While dealing with the serious childcare issue, Naomi and her coworkers fought alongside their union, SEIU 1021, to ensure they could join their bosses in working from home. In the two weeks it took them to get work-from-home approved, they had been exposed to the virus in the office and while commuting, as their bosses sat safely at home.

“It wasn’t like oh, okay, I recognize that you can do most of your things from home. So, go ahead, we’re going home. It was a struggle. And a lot of us are still struggling with that right now,” she states, frustrated.

In AHS, like the rest of society, white-collar workers with office jobs are the ones most likely to have benefited from a swift transition to working from home. Those engaged in manual labor, the essential workforce, can’t work from home, so they have little choice but to keep working, often in unsafe conditions, or find themselves unemployed. They lack the protection they need to protect themselves from Covid-19. According to location analysis company Cuebiq, by March 16th, those in the highest-income locations had already cut their movement by nearly half. Poorer areas did not see a similar drop until three days later. 

Racism within the workforce

Naomi and her coworkers had to fight for their right to work from home even though they could have done so easily at any point. She says this shows management’s blatant disregard for those in the lower ranks of AHS. Naomi sounded exasperated when she said, “It’s almost like they’re trying to hold us to a higher standard than they hold themselves. So they’re able to work at home in order to take care of their kids and stuff like that, but we can’t.” 

Adding to this injustice, she pointed out the obvious racism, “We’re all people of color. In my department. We’re all people of color. And so it really made it sort of just like, oh, strange, you know what I mean?” 

The economic mobility trends are disturbing: African Americans are less likely to hold white-collar jobs than their white counterparts. Unequal access to better living conditions, higher education, and wealth at a structural, systemic level have disproportionately hurt them. There is a persistent racial wealth gap that has left African Americans trying to play catch up, a crisis that has only become more evident during Covid-19. 

The pandemic has also exposed us to the harsh effects of this economic inequality on health: according to research by Johns Hopkins University, African Americans account for 34% of Covid deaths. Living in low-income neighborhoods, along with working jobs that cannot be done while social distancing, and experiencing racism within organizations have made them more likely to catch the virus than others.  Overall, we are seeing that people of color have been hit the hardest. 

“Structural racism, structural sexism is blaring,” Naomi says of the situation in AHS, “inequalities in health care, disparities in health care, all of that, at one location.” 

AHS workers fight back

It is a privilege and luxury to work from home – and while it is easily granted to those with white-collar jobs, it comes at a cost for essential workers and those without workplace protections. At the same time, uneven access to healthcare, childcare, household chore help, and safe housing all factor into the crisis. Covid-19 has exposed the class and racial divide that was never truly resolved, only hidden. 

AHS has long been plagued by corruption and mismanagement, exacting a high price on workers and patients alike. “I think the way in which they view us, the healthcare worker, it also shows how they view and value our patients that we serve,” Naomi said. “We have some of the most vulnerable patients in the Bay Area. They’re displaced. They’re mentally ill, they have multiple medical conditions.”

The cycle is never-ending due to those that hold decision-making power, and also happen to hold racial biases, creating a higher class divide within the marginalized community. With that being said, we are witnessing AHS workers fight bravely for their safety, their communities and their patients. They have held multiple protests demanding personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensuring adequate medical supplies for all. They are also fundraising for essential equipment needed to protect themselves.

The fight doesn’t stop here though. Recently Highland Hospital fired a nurse for wearing a garbage bag as a gown. SEIU 1021, the union that represents Highland Hospital workers, is asking the public to email the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to demand that AHS reinstate the fired nurse immediately.