The inequality virus: how the pandemic hit America’s poorest

For years, Mary P was employed by a major firm, cleaning its executive offices in Kansas City. Then, out of the blue a decade ago, the mother of three was told she was working for a different company.

Mary P would carry on cleaning the same offices, but over time, while executives whose desks she was polishing continued to enjoy the fruits of their company’s fortunes, she saw her pay erode, healthcare coverage diminish, and what had seemed a secure job turn into an ad hoc position with few protections.

Then coronavirus made its appearance.

“They told me to go home. They would call me if they needed me. I won’t get paid. The health insurance only lasts until the end of the month,” said Mary P, who did not wish to be identified because she hopes to return to her job.

Had coronavirus hit 15 years ago, she reckons she would have been in the same position as those whose offices she cleaned – at home, collecting salaries, reassured by good health coverage if they fall sick. But now she is cut adrift.

“I can apply for food stamps and unemployment, but it won’t pay the rent. I’m really afraid of what happens if I get sick. I will just have to stay home. I can’t afford to pay for a doctor,” she said.

As millions of Americans apply for unemployment benefits, the coronavirus pandemic has brutally laid bare the extent of US’s growing inequality, not only between the super rich and the rest of the country, but in the quality of jobs and the social protections that come with them.

‘It’s not just about jobs’

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, said: “It has drawn into focus those disparities in a way that it’s not just about jobs, it’s not just about wages. It’s about health and working conditions and access to health insurance. All of these things highlight that there’s two different societies in this country. Because of rising inequality, more people are vulnerable.”

The US is not alone in face a huge surge in unemployment because of the pandemic. But American workers are particularly vulnerable because they have neither the welfare safety nets afforded by France or Germany, nor the public healthcare of the UK and Canada. The rise of outsourcing, contract work and gig economy jobs has seen ever increasing numbers of workers exposed to sudden economic shock, whether because of a financial crisis or a pandemic.

Coronavirus has also thrown a spotlight on the president’s claims of a strong economy when so many American workers lack the resources to cope with even a brief period without work. A Federal Reserve survey last year said four in 10 workers would struggle to find $400 in an emergency, with out-of-pocket medical expenses presenting a particular hardship.

Pat “Duke” Dujakovich, the president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO union confederation, said large numbers of his members were suddenly put out of work and now face an uncertain future with many of them losing their healthcare coverage in the middle of a national medical emergency.

Dujakovich, who was a firefighter for 30 years, said he saw what was to come on a single day after a series of concerts and sporting events in Kansas City were called off because of coronavirus.

“Everything got cancelled on a Wednesday. Thursday, the stage hands tore down what they had already set up, and that is the last time any of them worked anywhere in the region. They were the first ones to go and they’ve been out of work for quite a while.”

To Gould, the crisis has been deepened by companies shedding responsibility.

“Part of this is about employers not taking responsibility for people that should really be on their books, whether or not they’re gig workers, contract workers, self-employed workers. Those people are actually employees and they should be treated like employees,” she said.

Scraping together $800 a month

Many of those workers lost their health insurance at the time they might most need it, with bills for coronavirus treatment potentially running into the tens of thousands of dollars. Laid-off workers are eligible to continue their coverage under a government scheme called Cobra. But Dujakovich said many would not be able to afford it.

“I’m still trying to figure out how someone who just lost their job manages to scrape together $800 or a $1,000 a month to maintain those Cobra benefits,” he said. There is no way I have found for a person who is unemployed on their own to try to get healthcare in America. It just doesn’t exist. And so the only way is through employment.”

But even those who still have jobs are vulnerable to inadequate protections.

Gould said more than a quarter of private-sector workers in the US cannot claim paid time off for sickness.. That, she said, puts large numbers of people on low pay at increased risk of Covid-19, because many of them have little choice but to go on working, even if they show symptoms, increasing the likelihood of the virus spreading.

Coronavirus is revealing how broken America’s economy really is

“This virus exposes a vast inequality between the professional sector, white-collar workers, who are able to weather this at home with much less risk, have paid sick days if they need to take it, have health insurance,” said Gould. “And then there is another class of workers that has far fewer protections. Those that are more likely to be exposed because of their jobs, more likely to get sick, more likely have adverse consequences from getting sick because of rising inequality, because they don’t have paid sick days or health insurance.”

Many of those same workers are also more likely to contract Covid-19 because they have jobs that bring them into contact with the public such as transport workers, shop assistants and carers, highlighted by the death of Jason Hargrove, a Detroit bus driver.

Two weeks ago, Hargrove posted a Facebook video venting his anger at a passenger who coughed in his face several times.

“For you to get on the bus, and stand on the bus, and cough several times without covering up your mouth, and you know that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, that lets me know that some folks don’t care,” he said.

The 50 year-old father of six contracted coronavirus and died 11 days later.

Gould said this goes some way to explain why African American communities have been so badly hit. Many black workers have jobs that make it difficult to isolate while minority communities also endure higher levels of medical conditions – diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure – that make people more vulnerable to coronavirus. African American communities also have a harder time obtaining good healthcare.

‘It’s a racial justice issue’: Black Americans are dying in greater numbers from Covid-19

“Even if they’re OK to go to work, and they’re healthy and strong, they could still be bringing home that disease to elderly family members or to family members that are at higher risk with heart conditions, with their asthma or whatever it might be.”

In Milwaukee county, Wisconsin, black people accounted for 81% of deaths from coronavirus but just 26% of the population, according to ProPublica. Even in cities that have yet to be badly hit, such as Kansas City, the highest concentration of coronavirus cases is in the district with the largest proportion of African American residents.

‘You have to think … what can kill me first?’

Dujakovich said that while those at the top are better able to insulate themselves from coronavirus, he told a told a meeting of national AFL-CIO leaders that they will not be able to avoid its consequences.

“I said right now the bankers don’t give a fuck about working people, but they’re going to give a fuck about us very shortly. When we stop making car payments and house payments and rent and all of those things, because working people have to prioritise,” he said.

“When the first pay cheque is missed and the second pay cheque is questionable and the third pay cheque is really questionable, then you have to kind of think of things as to what can kill me first. I need to feed my family this week.”

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