Carlos Aviles has fought for years for what he considers to be adequate staffing at Temple University Hospital, where he is a pharmacy tech.
For Aviles, whose work involves getting patients medications, staffing is crucial: If there aren’t enough hospital workers, it’s impossible to provide the best care, he said. Workers inevitably burn out, added Aviles, president of his union local with Pennsylvania Association of Nurses and Allied Professionals, or PASNAP.
“Health-care professionals need to feel respected at work by having the resources they need to care for their patients,” said Aviles, 40. The pandemic has only made that clearer, he added.
Among the workplace issues brought to national attention by COVID-19, the health emergency has reinvigorated workers’ struggles against problems that have long existed, such as staffing, job security, and a lack of access to sick leave.
When policy experts define what makes a good job, they often think of pay and benefits. COVID-19, however, heightened scrutiny on issues such as worker health and safety and equity and inclusion, said Jenny Weissbourd, an associate director at the Aspen Institute who studies job quality for low-wage workers.
It also “underscored the importance of giving workers voice and agency on the job,” she said, adding that the coronavirus showed that a “good job” lets workers speak up about health and safety concerns, for example, and an employer will take action.
Philadelphia became the first major city last summer to make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for speaking out about COVID-19 working conditions, in a victory for labor organizations. Worker groups also helped secure job security rights for employees laid off during the pandemic and emergency paid sick leave. But these laws were focused on the pandemic. Philadelphia City Council voted Thursday to reinstate the emergency leave law, which expired at the end of last year, and the job security legislation — which mandates that laid-off hospitality workers are called back in order of seniority — will expire in 2025, when the hospitality industry is projected to have fully recovered.
Their success was tied in part to what Weissbourd described as the increased awareness of essential workers, people whose work was often low-wage and high-risk.
“COVID deaths have made people recognize the ways these jobs are precarious,” she said.
The question now is: Will any of this endure?
PASNAP and several other health-care unions in Pennsylvania are testing the limits of worker support spurred by COVID and trying again to push for state bills that mandate “safe staffing” — minimum staffing levels so that workers can adequately care for patients.
Workers from a range of industries said COVID-19 reinforced the need for an employer that shows compassion for its workers.
Leah Wood, a special education assistant at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, and her fellow Philadelphia School District “paraprofessionals,” workers in roles such as classroom aides and bilingual counseling assistants, have been fighting for higher pay since before the pandemic. Salaries for paraprofessionals are capped at $31,000. Most of them are Black and brown women, Wood said.
Those low wages were even more of a problem during the pandemic when schools went virtual.
“I’ve had friends run their money short because they had to increase their internet or because they had to buy a Chromebook” because the school district didn’t initially give special education assistants laptops, said Wood, 45.
The school district said it offered Chromebooks to paraprofessionals once it had “long-term plans to remain in remote learning,” according to spokesperson Marissa Orbanek. If paraprofessionals do not have reliable internet, Orbanek said, educators can work out of district buildings “where we have thousands of employees working safely.”
Mike Brown, a bike security officer at Temple University, said one of the hardest things about working during the pandemic is not getting additional paid leave to quarantine after exposure. Brown, 62, said he and his coworkers, who are members of union 32BJ SEIU, have to use their vacation time to isolate or else quarantine without pay.
“When you’re forced to quarantine, your employer should pay you point blank,” he said, “because if you’re out of work for two weeks, that sets you back major.”
Temple University referred questions to Allied Universal, the contractor that employs the security officers. Allied Universal did not respond to a request for comment.
Gig workers echoed the call for an employer that cares about workers — something, they said, that’s become even more critical during COVID-19. Although Uber, Lyft, and other tech companies that rely on gig workers have fought to classify their workers as independent contractors, labor advocates and gig workers have said they’re treated more like employees. It’s the app, or the tech company, they have said, that is their boss.
Usman Razak drove for Uber and Lyft full time for about five years before stopping during the pandemic because of health risks: Razak, 32, is immunocompromised.
He tried getting back on the road but didn’t feel safe because he had no way to enforce mask-wearing. On its app, Uber tells customers they must wear a mask. But not everyone followed the rules, and Razak didn’t want to argue with customers about it because he knew he could be easily kicked off the app if a customer complained.
This is just the latest slight from Uber and Lyft, he said, who “should care a little more about the drivers. ... We are working for them. We are making them money.”
Uber spokesperson Carly DeBeikes said Uber drivers could cancel rides if customers aren’t wearing a mask, and it won’t contribute to their cancellation rate, which Uber says it uses to track driver reliability. A high cancellation rate affects a driver’s ability to access incentives through Uber’s “Uber Pro” program.
Nannies and housecleaners with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance won a law in 2019 that gave the city’s 16,000 domestic workers new labor protections, including paid time off and advanced notice of termination. But right before it went into effect, the pandemic hit, and domestic workers lost all their work.
Housecleaner Oscar Cubero said he’s still struggling to get his client base back to pre-pandemic levels and has had to lower his rates. Even so, Cubero, 48, said through a Spanish interpreter that he wouldn’t accept any clients that didn’t agree to the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights law: “I feel so much more protected knowing that I do have rights,” he said, “I do have benefits.”
The pandemic has also underscored the lack of support for working parents, as more than 2.3 million women left the U.S. workforce since the beginning of the health emergency, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Emily Foote, a tech investor and mother of three young children, said the pandemic made it clear that work must offer flexibility and support for parents.
For those who can work from home, Foote, 41, said it’s not just about flexibility because in that case, “you’re working every waking hour.” There needs to be support in the form of paid leave and paying for child care or tutoring, so working parents aren’t expected to do two jobs at the same time.
Some workers say the pandemic has provided perspective on work.
Byshera Williams, who started working part-time jobs when she was 15, said she’d been on the “endless wheel of the next thing and the next thing” to one day get her “dream job.”
“The longer the pandemic goes on, I don’t really think any job is the dream job anymore,” said Williams, 25, who quit her post at a literary nonprofit last fall when she realized how unhappy and exhausted she was. She now works with an “equity pod,” helping children with their remote school day.
Watching the pandemic unfold, seeing her friends get laid off with no safety net, made her realize: “Jobs have failed people.”
The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.