Since March of this year, my mother’s days have been filled with uncertainty. She was laid off from her position as a medical billing specialist at a small collections company and has yet to hear back regarding whether or not she will be let back on. Given the lack of demand for individuals in her position at the moment, and the fact that it is hard getting any job anywhere at this given time, she continues to wait: to wait for the fear to end and for life to return to normal.
As many of the 55 million individuals who have filed initial unemployment claims since March, she faced several complications when attempting to gain access to her benefits from the state of Connecticut (the website crashing, an inability to file claims on a weekly basis, or get a hold of Department of Labor representatives to get answers to questions, an extensive wait period for her). This has been true for other states around the country as the Department of Labor is inundated with benefit requests. The scope of unemployment insurance complications point out inconsistencies in our state institutions. The fact of the matter is: being low-income and unemployed is outright terrifying, and the difficulties in gaining access to these essential benefits exacerbate this fear. This was certainly true for my mom, as she was forced to wait four weeks for any benefits whatsoever.
How our government is responding to the coronavirus pandemic is proof that the United States labor market is not conducive to happy, safe, and financially stable workers. My mother is not the worst case scenario, nor is she suffering from the negative implications of being forced to go to work in fear on a daily basis. This fear is reserved for those continuing to go to work in hospitals, in grocery stores, in law enforcement, in waste removal. These individuals are unable to always adhere to social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders if they want to continue to bring home a paycheck. There is no unemployment insurance, no saving grace. They may not have to worry about whether or not they will have a job when this is all over, but the real fear for survival is still prominent and weighs heavily as workers leave the house every morning, mask in hand. Many do not have access to hazard pay or even the guarantee of quality health insurance. Getting sick as a front line worker is much more likely and can pack a financial punch. These are the people who cannot handle the loss of one hour of work, never mind two weeks worth of hours (or more) that come with quarantining if contracting coronavirus.
The reality is that for most college-educated individuals, these life-or-death stakes don’t apply. College educated individuals (an advanced degree is even better) often work jobs that have enough flexibility to allow for remote work. While it may not be ideal, and working in an unfamiliar environment may be an adjustment, their homes are often comfortable, their finances may not be as hard-hit, and their savings accounts are more padded. Those that are not college-educated face job instability in emergency situations like the pandemic, and must resort to working essential jobs that are likely to expose them to the virus. While this pandemic will not leave anyone without scars, it is safe to say that the upper-middle class, college-educated white population will leave the most unscathed. Well, the billionaires and Hollywood elite should be okay too.
The government needs to do better, and society needs to recognize that the workers we recognize to be essential now have always been essential, and deserve a living wage and a guarantee of quality health insurance. Those who work in jobs that may not always be guaranteed deserve better, easier access to unemployment insurance, pandemic or no pandemic. We cater to those with the power and privilege while taking advantage of those cashiering, answering the phones, stocking, nursing us back to health...until there is a global disaster. We need to do better. For my mom sitting home hoping for some semblance of normalcy to return, for the cashier sweating behind the Plexiglas while she scans your cereal, for the mailman carrying bottles of hand sanitizer in the glove compartment of his truck, for anyone that doesn’t have the luxury of working from home, we must fight for our essential workers.