Mis Ángeles: In This Existential War, It's Low-Wage Workers Who Keep The Supply Chain Running
The man cries sometimes on his way to work. That's when all the pressure gets to him.
"It's pretty overwhelming at times," he told me recently over the phone on his drive to work. I could hear the road in the background and I kind of missed traffic, briefly.
We're talking on the phone on the same morning that the U.S. Senate passed a $2-trillion stimulus package to bail out corporations and attempt to stem unprecedented unemployment. Now, that bill is through the House of Representatives too.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has become the worldwide leader in confirmed coronavirus cases. It's harrowing news and I suddenly can't imagine what it's like to be driving to work anymore.
"I'm scared," he said. "But honestly, I need this job and I don't really have any other options."
He's too scared to share his name publicly — afraid of being fired for speaking out. Normally, we insist people use their real full names, but we aren't in normal times. So I'll call him Jack, just for the purpose of telling his story.
Jack is a father, a husband, a friend, and among the thousands of warehouse workers that are putting in long hours at great risk to their health so that we are safer from COVID-19. They maintain the supply lines for hospitals, grocery stores and other essential businesses. The war might be existential but the front line in real.
"I'm trying to do everything I can to make sure we're all safe, but I can't," Jack said.
Because the "we" is a lot of people operating in tight conditions.
Jack works in a packed warehouse with hundreds of others moving day and night to keep up with the highest demand in recent memory. There aren't enough employees to handle it, but also no room or time to make sure everyone is standing six feet apart. The workers share a tiny bathroom and a few empty hand sanitizer stations.
The crazy part is that the Fortune 500 company he works for packages and sells millions of dollars in cleaning supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer. Jack didn't want to tell me which one it is. They're all the same anyway, he said.
"I don't know if they weren't prepared or it was just greed, but I'm not really sure why they're not taking it seriously," Jack said. "Every day I leave this house, I know I'm more at risk especially because I know they're not taking all the precautions there."
The long hours, the short staff, the stress of working during the pandemic takes a physical toll on the immune system. Tired, sleep-deprived workers are more susceptible to infection. And not being able to wash and clean your hands properly can spread coronavirus to these packages that are being shipped to hospitals and everywhere else.
"If you don't worry about production now, you won't worry about production later because there won't be any production," Jack said.
He's tried taking his concerns to his managers, but he said they keep telling him there's nothing to worry about and that the flu kills more people. Meanwhile the Los Angeles County Health Department has said the mortality rate for COVID-19 is higher than the flu. It's more contagious too, and more capable of knocking out an entire close-quartered group of people at once.
"And I know from talking to my shift manager, they've never seen the profit margins this high," Jack said. "He was telling me and he was happy about it."
That's a hell of a thing to hear when you're complaining about working conditions.
"You start to feel like they not only don't care about your safety in a way but like, they don't care about you as a human being," Jack said. "You know I've been anti-capitalist philosophically for a while, but I never thought I would ever be personally hurt by actual capitalism."
Jack told me he's even tried reaching out to corporate headquarters for help or even peace of mind.
"My manager came up to me yesterday and told me, 'You know they're only going to do the legally required minimum, right?'" Jack tells me. "I probably cried three times this week, just because it kind of f——- with you to feel that hopeless."
He's right. It does.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.
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