Katy, a daycare teacher in rural Connecticut, and Martha, a social worker in New York City, have been friends for more than ten years and sisters-in-law for five. Between coronavirus panic texts and family FaceTime sessions, the two interviewed each other about their care work jobs and workplace organizing in this chaotic time.
Martha: What’s it like to be a childcare worker at this moment?
Katy: Well, the daycare is still open as of today, even though a lot of children are staying home after the public schools closed last week. So attendance is very low, which has caused a lot of uncertainty among staff about how we’re moving forward. My boss didn’t communicate anything to us at first, no staff meetings or anything to keep us updated on new procedures or schedules.
On Friday, when we had an exposure scare, the only thing our boss did was send that teacher home and hand us bottles of stronger hydrogen peroxide. So we went into the weekend not knowing if he would stay open, or if we would be needed on the schedule. I last worked this past Monday, before I was put on a zero-hour schedule at the last minute, and was still thinking we’d follow in the footsteps of the schools. If the logic was that a lot of children and teachers in close proximity were dangerous to public health, putting more children in a different building wouldn’t be any safer. We’re in even closer proximity to each other because these are toddlers and infants that we’re holding…
Martha: …and you’re exposed to their bodily fluids.
Katy: Right, they’re sneezing on me and drooling on me. I’m changing diapers.
Martha: You had been coming into work not knowing what to expect, with no communication from your boss and not necessarily knowing the larger context in which he was making decisions.
Katy: Right. So I expressed concern on Monday directly to my boss about him not communicating with us. It turned out he was following the direction of the (state-level) Office of Early Childhood, which was asking childcare centers to stay open and even take in more children to cover the school closings. It’s frustrating to me because, while I understand the need for child care for a lot of these workers, there’s a public health conflict that hasn’t been taken seriously.
But anyway, after Monday there’s been additional confusion about all of our employment statuses. Were we laid off? Could we file for unemployment with sporadic scheduling? It’s been a disaster. He’s been making decisions on a day-by-day basis, instead of taking decisive action, which is the worst way to handle this type of situation.
Martha: I’ve also been out of work—on medical leave, because I broke my arm—but I’ve been communicating with my coworkers every day. I’m also in a care job as a hospital social worker, but it’s much different in that my position has been professionalized. Social workers have licenses and we’re salaried employees, not hourly like you guys. We get really good benefits but we’re not unionized—partly because we get good benefits, they take away some of the immediate reasons other workers would organize.
I think something that feels frustrating about my position, and I think it’s similar for your work, is that we often feel left behind and overlooked. Obviously hospitals are ground zero for the epidemic, and people are focused on us now, but many positions within them are still overlooked.
Katy: Although, one of the most interesting things that’s been happening is previously-invisible labor is being exposed by the crisis. With everyone at home or unemployed, we’re the only visible workers now.
Martha: We’re also seeing the label “essential” being used, but it’s still unclear what that means. Is my position essential to the hospital functioning? Hospital administration would obviously say yes. Specifically, in my department we help people apply for health insurance, deal with health insurance issues, connecting people to home care services—all the things related to insurance and public benefits.
Katy: So in the current context you’re essential, but not in an ideal system.
Martha: We should never even exist in a hospital system. Hospitals shouldn’t have to dedicate entire departments to billing and figuring out complex insurance issues. People should be able to get healthcare for free. Even in the best of times, my position shouldn’t be essential and it shouldn’t exist. But at this moment, I do understand that people will have issues with their health insurance and may not get the care they need without someone to help them.
Katy: I saw someone owed like $32,000 for coronavirus treatment.
Martha: Yes, and that harms everyone—the individual and the community—when they feel they can’t seek treatment. So it is a community service in that sense, but I have a lot of complex feelings about it.
Katy: I feel like my job is the opposite. In an ideal society, my job does exist, but under the current system I’m alienated from its purpose. It doesn’t feel essential because we’re treated so badly. There’s the utopian version of childcare, where I would be fulfilled and dignified because I’m on the front lines helping nurses go out and do their work. When I think about it in the abstract, I aspire to fulfill that role. But the reality is, it’s an undignified and undercompensated shitty job. And frankly I don’t want to go to work. I don’t want to be in that role, especially when I’m being endangered. I can’t just flip a switch and suddenly feel good about it.
Martha: Exactly. If we are essential and still working, we aren’t necessarily being treated that way. My office is only beginning to take precautions, like providing a small amount of masks.
Katy: Because you have sick people coming into your office, right?
Martha: Yes, we have patients come into our office in person to get assistance. My coworker, for example, saw six patients in person on Monday with no protection.
Katy: Monday was my last day of work and obviously that wasn’t the beginning of the pandemic. But I first raised the issue of having masks then, and it hadn’t even crossed my boss’s mind yet. Nothing had crossed his mind.
Martha: That’s similar to my conversation with my boss a week ago. I called her because I heard my coworkers were not being provided any protection and I asked if they could work from home. It hadn’t occurred to her. It’s not super easy, logistically, for my position, but it’s not unthinkable. Bosses just are not thinking creatively to protect workers.
Katy: Or even to compensate them. I know our daycare runs on a pretty thin margin, but I also think my boss pays himself a lot. He at least doesn’t seem to be hurting. When I mentioned potential hazard pay he went, “Well, I don’t know where THAT money would come from.” Uh, I don’t know—from you?
Martha: I know you talk a lot about small businesses, is there something to say about their role in all of this?
Katy: It’s infuriating to see the government maintaining essential services by subsidizing small businesses. It’s not like our state government is seizing child care centers or even commanding them to provide services to emergency personnel at no profit. When I see these directives come out, and it’s incentivizing a private daycare to take more kids, I wonder why money isn’t going directly to the care providers. That would also cut the cost for the state or the emergency personnel that need it. Seeing private profit—instead of the workers themselves—getting deemed essential is pretty frustrating.
Martha: Right, who does that benefit? If it doesn’t benefit the workers providing the care then it will potentially only benefit the owners.
Katy: My boss is only following state directions to the letter. So, if they don’t say “give your workers a mask,” he’s not going to give us a mask. We are seeing only bare minimum direction from the state.
From what you were saying, it sounds like you’re taking on a sort of ad hoc leadership role in the vacuum left by your boss during the crisis—how has that been taking shape?
Martha: I’ve been working there for three years, and I’ve formed really good relationships with almost all my coworkers, which has enabled me to do some workplace organizing in the past. But in this moment, since the need for organizing has been urgent, it’s presented such a good opportunity. People are more open to it because everyone feels how badly we’re being treated so acutely. They know pretty clearly what their demands are, and what they need to be safe.
I’ve been able to stay in contact with my coworkers every day. Just today, they were finally let out early, but only after one of them had been showing visible symptoms of the coronavirus for three days. They’re home early so the office can be cleaned, but theoretically they’ve all been exposed already.
Katy: Technically, they should be in self-isolation.
Martha: Right. But because there’s been no leadership over this, it’s too little, too late. My boss has been refusing to make any meaningful changes until now.
How have your relationships with your coworkers been through this?
Katy: Well, over the past few months I’ve been doing a very slow burn in terms of organizing. I’m pretty atomized at my job because I’m physically in a different building from the other teachers. So this crisis has been a good accelerant for organizing. I’ve been asking them how they feel about our boss’s handling of the situation and gauging discontent. It opened up an opportunity to be more direct.
On Monday, I was so frustrated with the decisions being made that I spent one of the babies’ nap times drafting a list of demands and concerns to our boss—and I got a few coworkers to agree to sign it. I regret being a little slow on this, because our staff was mostly sent home this week, but I’ve been texting the ones that are still working to get updates on the situation and having good conversations. I’ve said basically everything except the U-word.
Everything is becoming so bare with this crisis: our bosses really just think we’re dirt and do not consider us humans. We can’t waste this opportunity to organize.