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Philly’s essential workers are risking their lives for low pay: ‘I can’t not go to work’

Many of Philadelphia's essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic are women and people of color earning low pay. And many say they don’t feel protected or appreciated.

Ryan Stewart wipes down a SEPTA bus at the Olney Transportation Center. He takes pride in his work and in his designation as an essential worker. But if he's that essential, why can't he get a free coronavirus test at Rite Aid, or a free coffee at Wawa, where signs thanking essential workers cover the glass windows?
Ryan Stewart wipes down a SEPTA bus at the Olney Transportation Center. He takes pride in his work and in his designation as an essential worker. But if he's that essential, why can't he get a free coronavirus test at Rite Aid, or a free coffee at Wawa, where signs thanking essential workers cover the glass windows?Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The danger starts when the 56 bus picks her up in Northeast Philadelphia.

She avoids touching the grimy handrails as she steps aboard, and once she takes her seat for the ride to work, another fear sets in: Will this be the day she catches the coronavirus at work?

“On the way there, I start thinking: ‘What am I about to walk into?’ There are some OK days and some really bad days,” said the 46-year-old grocery cashier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears losing her job at the Fresh Grocer. “I pray a lot. Not just for the employees. I pray for the whole world.”

All over Philadelphia, “essential” workers are hustling to keep the city going.

They bag our groceries, answer our calls, drive our buses, care for our vulnerable, guard our prisons, clean our floors, deliver our packages, and secure our buildings. And they’ve been doing so for weeks now even as the death toll from the pandemic rises. Many of them are women and people of color earning low and working-class wages. They’re told they’re essential. But many say they don’t feel protected or appreciated.

An Inquirer analysis of federal employment data shows that a quarter of Pennsylvania workers deemed essential during the crisis make less than $30,000 annually, and two-thirds make less than the state’s median household income of $60,000. Those figures raise questions about whether the people keeping society afloat are being sufficiently compensated, even as the government expands support for the swelling ranks of the newly unemployed.

More than a dozen workers, many of whom requested anonymity to avoid being fired, said they sometimes lack the equipment needed to stay safe on the job and worry about bringing the virus home to their families. Hundreds have already tested positive and others have died. Some said they have health conditions that put them at higher risk, but they’re working anyway to put food on the table.

“I’m not in a position where I could just quit,” said the cashier, who made $8 an hour before the pandemic and now earns $10 an hour. “I need the money.”

When she finally arrives at the supermarket after a commute that can take two hours because of reduced SEPTA service during the pandemic, she scrubs her hands, slips on disposable latex gloves, and dons a surgical mask.

» READ MORE: One close-knit block is Philly at its best. But the coronavirus casts a dark shadow

The supermarket keeps every other register closed for social distancing, and disinfects its checkout zone once an hour. Still, at least one worker has tested positive, said the cashier, who has diabetes and high blood pressure — two conditions that make her more susceptible to a deadly bout of COVID-19.

“Some people come in and say they appreciate us,” she said. “But then other customers come in mad. … And we’re the ones who get the grief.”

As she rides the bus home through a dark, deserted city after clocking out most days at 10 p.m., the cashier fantasizes about getting a new job. “Since I got there," she said, "I’ve been thinking about how to get out.”

‘I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe’

Ryan Stewart loves the open road. That’s why he’s been driving trolleys and buses for SEPTA for 30 years.

He said he’s at peace behind the wheel, but a few weeks ago, he accepted a new assignment: disinfecting the buses he’s operated for so long.

SEPTA has suspended some routes and scaled back employees’ hours since the coronavirus swept through the region. This assignment wasn’t forced on him, though. He chose it to reduce his exposure and protect his wife, who has lupus, a chronic condition that weakens her immune system.

“First you hear stand six feet apart and you’ll be safe," said Stewart, 51, who makes $30.79 an hour. "Then you hear it’s airborne. I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe.”

In the pandemic’s earliest days, Stewart was driving the 55 bus through Montgomery County, and he watched ridership dwindle as things closed down. First it was the mall. Then other shops and restaurants along his route. In just a few days, ridership had collapsed. He called it surreal.

Stewart takes pride in driving a bus and in his designation as an essential worker. But if he’s that essential, he said, why can’t he get a free coronavirus test at Rite Aid, or a free coffee at Wawa, where signs thanking essential workers cover the glass windows?

“We’re essential, but apparently we’re not essential enough to get a cup of coffee,” Stewart said.

‘We’re like sitting ducks’

These days, the neat rows of cubicles inside the University of Pennsylvania Health System’s call center aren’t quite as full as they used to be.

Some workers are out sick with the coronavirus, some are working from home. But the University City hub is still staffed 24 hours a day with operators who answer and direct all calls placed across three hospitals, including emergencies.

Staffers say that managers told them four of the center’s 40 employees have the virus, but that they know of more.

“We know it’s nine, because we talk to each other,” one worker said.

Patrick Norton, a Penn Medicine spokesperson, denied that management kept workers in the dark about sickened colleagues.

“We continue to provide accurate, timely information to ensure the safety of our employees," Norton said.

Six call center employees said in interviews that the workplace’s tight quarters and shared spaces make it a haven for infection. The workers share desks, keyboards, the bathroom and kitchen, a fridge, headsets, and the water cooler. Most make roughly $18 an hour.

“We don’t have the same desks every day. We jump around,” said another longtime staffer who contracted the virus and is now at home recovering. “We’re like sitting ducks.”

Penn Medicine recently told call center workers affiliated with two of its hospitals that they could work from home part of the week on a rotating basis. Operators say workers from a third are in training.

Call center staffers said the person hardest hit by the virus in their office was a pregnant woman in her late 20s who was rushed into intensive care when she had trouble breathing. She was put on a ventilator and delivered her baby son two months early. The infant is still in the neonatal intensive care unit, but the worker is home, slowly recovering and undergoing therapy to learn how to walk and talk again.

Part of the problem, workers said, is that Penn Medicine was slow to provide them with masks. By the time surgical masks arrived, at least two workers, including the pregnant one, had already gotten sick.

The longtime employee who is home recovering dreads the thought of returning to work.

“I really have such anxiety,” she said. “I don’t want to be there, but I can’t not go to work. I’m going to have to go back to that germ place.”

'We’re on that front line’

When Denise Major arrives at her son Maurice’s North Philadelphia home, the first thing she does is disinfect the surfaces.

Major is employed as a home health aide supporting her adult son, who was shot twice in the back of the head during an argument with a friend 15 years ago and has suffered from seizures ever since. She works for Public Partnerships, an organization that coordinates with states to manage home care for seniors and disabled individuals.

No one wants to catch the coronavirus, but Major said she’s become fixated on staying healthy.

If she got sick, she’s not sure who would care for her son, who needs assistance seven days a week, sometimes until midnight. Major doesn’t get any sick days or paid time off, and cooking or using the bathroom would be especially tough for Maurice to do by himself.

“If I get sick, I would be screwed,” she said. “Because I surely would not take [the virus] to my son. I wouldn’t forgive myself for that.”

Major’s job isn’t the first thing people think of when they talk about essential workers.

“We’re on that front line also,” said Major, 54.

The median hourly wage for home care workers is $11.17, according to a 2019 report from Pennsylvania’s Long-Term Care Council.

Last month, when her son had a seizure, Major had to weigh the benefits of taking him to the hospital against the risk that he — or she — might contract the virus

She decided to keep him home, and ever since, she’s been working hard to better predict when a seizure might be coming in hopes of avoiding a hospital trip.

Major said her supervisor told her that if her son catches the virus, she’s not supposed to see him. But she said she would never abandon him.

“I’m not leaving my son in the house if he’s really sick,” she said.

‘If I don’t go back, I won’t get paid’

One correctional officer stayed home sick for almost the entire month of April after contracting the virus. Now he’s going back to work at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, where more than 900 men are imprisoned, even though he fears he may still be contagious.

“It seems like it’s still going through my body. But if I don’t go back, I won’t get paid,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. “I can’t afford not to go back to work.”

He had all the classic symptoms. A 102-degree fever. Chest pains. Vomiting. No sense of taste or smell. And he had trouble breathing, a symptom made worse by his chronic asthma. He later tested positive, and so did his wife.

The officer quarantined in his basement away from his family instead of seeking treatment at a hospital.

“I didn’t go to the hospital. I couldn’t do it,” the officer said. “I heard bad stories about people being in the hospital all alone.”

Inside the prison where he works, social distancing is nearly impossible. Correctional officers are in close contact with inmates every time they deliver a meal or open an inmate’s cell door. The average salary for a correctional officer is $27 an hour.

» READ MORE: Philly jail workers want judges to release more inmates because of coronavirus

So far, more than 160 out of 1,900 officers who work in the city’s prison system have tested positive, said Eric Hill of AFSCME District Council 33 Local 159, a union representing workers in prisons.

One inmate and a prison social worker who contracted the virus have died, Hill said.

Now that he’s back at work, the officer said he’s trying to change his behavior to protect his colleagues from his germs. He doesn’t eat in the staff dining room anymore, and he tries to stay as far away from other officers as much as possible.

“You look around at roll call and you see some of your partners out,” he said. “You see people disappearing. One after the other.”

‘We’re pretty much on our own’

Spring flowers are blooming, but Joan-Elaine Miller could swear it’s the holiday season based on the number of packages she’s been delivering each day for UPS in Ardmore.

With quarantine keeping shoppers at home, she’s moving as much volume as she does around Christmastime.

“There’s just not enough time to get all these deliveries made,” she said.

Miller has been with UPS for almost 30 years, and has seniority within the drivers’ union that allows her to cap her hours, a big perk when the workload for drivers is endless. But some newer drivers don’t have that luxury. They’re sometimes forced to pull 14-hour days, making some 250 stops per shift.

As of early May, there were 23 confirmed coronavirus cases across Philadelphia’s two sprawling UPS facilities, including five infected drivers, said Miller’s union, Teamsters Local 623, which represents 4,000 UPS workers.

Drivers who don’t work quickly enough and don’t know their rights under their union’s collective bargaining agreement sometimes find supervisors threatening to cut their hours or assign them undesirable routes, said Miller, 57, the rare woman in a sector dominated by men.

Matthew O’Connor, a spokesperson for UPS, denied that the company discriminates against drivers based on how quickly they work.

The UPS employees most likely to get sick on the job are the “inside” workers who handle packages at massive warehouses. They touch far more boxes than drivers do and work side-by-side all night long, said Miller.

Those jobs are more physically demanding and pay less. Part-time employees who work inside, the first job many UPS workers get at the company, start at $14 an hour. Most full-time drivers start at $21 an hour.

Miller has fewer hours and more protection than some of her colleagues, but she said that doesn’t mean she’s taking the pandemic lightly. She’s implemented new routines, like using a bleach-and-water solution given to all drivers to wipe down her handheld scanner and the many high-touch surfaces inside her delivery truck.

Then there are the inconveniences of working when so much of the region is shut down.

It’s tough to find places on her route to get something to eat or use the bathroom, Miller said. She wears gloves and uses plenty of hand sanitizer, but where is she supposed to stop to scrub her hands with warm, soapy water when everything is closed?

“We’re pretty much on our own,” Miller said.

‘I thought I’d been so careful’

The housekeeper started feeling sick at work on the last day of March.

It was a chilly day with temperatures in the high 40s. The 45-year-old woman remembers feeling flushed and stepping outside to cool off while on break at Care Pavilion Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in West Philadelphia, the second-largest nursing home in the city.

She knew at the time that several of the facility’s residents had tested positive for the coronavirus and that she had cleaned plenty of rooms before her supervisor distributed personal protective equipment. But she still didn’t think she would get it.

Later that week, while sitting in Temple University Hospital, she got the news every essential worker dreads: You have the virus.

“I wanted to cry,” the housekeeper said. “I couldn’t believe it. I called my coworkers, and they couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d been so careful.”

» READ MORE: Hospital cleaners are ‘the unsung heroes’ in the fight against coronavirus

Housekeepers are among the state’s lowest-paid essential workers — and some of the most exposed. She makes $12.34 an hour.

Housekeepers risk picking up the virus every time they wipe down a surface or collect a bag of trash. And that risk is amplified for workers in virus-stricken nursing homes like Care Pavilion, where dozens of residents caught it, city data obtained by The Inquirer show.

After her positive test result, the housekeeper was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and then released, only to return two days later with a fever and a blood sugar level so high that she was at risk of developing a life-threatening diabetic coma. This time, she had to stay in the hospital almost a week.

Before she went home, the housekeeper gave her 15-year-old son and 25-year-old nephew instructions on how to prepare the rowhouse they share in Nicetown. She asked them to buy large rolls of thick plastic sheeting at Home Depot and attach it to their bedroom doorways — to keep the virus in her bedroom and out of theirs.

‘If I got sick, I don’t think they would care’

Pregnant women are especially afraid during the pandemic because carrying a child naturally suppresses the immune system.

Danielle Quillen is four months pregnant with her first child and has diabetes — one of the conditions known to make the virus more deadly. After weeks of delays, her employer finally gave her and her coworkers masks. But they still haven’t received gloves. Or hazard pay.

“It’s not like I can just stay home,” Quillen said. “That would be the best option to protect me and my baby."

Quillen, 28, works in a Center City office building as a security guard, making $13.15 an hour. No one has spoken to her or the other guards who watch the building about how to stay safe on the job, she said. There are no signs posted asking visitors to stay six feet away from the front desk.

"If you want us there, wouldn’t you want to make sure we have the protection we need so we can do the job?” she said.

Last month, Quillen learned that the 53 bus she normally takes for the first leg of her commute had been shut down. Her supervisor suggested she try carpooling, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says carpooling is unsafe right now.

“It was like a slap in the face,” said Quillen, whose shift ends at 11 p.m. “I’m risking myself to come here and I’m pregnant and you guys can’t find a way for me to make sure I get home?”

For Quillen, who is due in November, this all adds up to a discouraging conclusion — her well-being doesn’t matter to her employer.

“If I got sick,” she said, “I don’t think they would care."