Essential Workers Demand Prioritization in Vaccine Rollout

Essential Workers Demand Prioritization in Vaccine Rollout
Alma Garcia fills hundreds of cold meal bags, in San Antonio on April 9, 2020. (U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

As the Biden-Harris administration celebrated distributing a landmark 50 million vaccines last week, essential workers at higher risk of COVID-19 infection and death are demanding official recognition as a prioritized group in the rollout of the vaccine.

Across industries from retail and grocery to service and home care, essential workers are uniting to bring attention to the disproportionate health risks they face to keep their communities afloat. And they’re demanding more than platitudes and cultural recognition as “heroes”—workers are fighting for policy change to provide them with safety and greater autonomy.

Essential workers—who are more likely to be Black, brown and Indigenous—are calling for states and the federal government to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control to include essential workers in Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout, so they can protect themselves and their communities.

In a press conference last week led by members of the National Essential Workers Campaign, a coalition of progressive worker advocacy groups and unions including Jobs With Justice, United For Respect, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Justice For Migrant Women and SEIU, essential workers and leaders of the labor justice movement made their case. 

“For the first time in a long time because of the COVID-19 crisis, low-wage workers in essential industries are being recognized and have support of most Americans,” saidErica Smiley, executive director of Jobs With Justice. “We believe this is a once in a generation opportunity to address the chronic undervaluing and insecurity of low-wage work in this country. We’re here today specifically seeking to improve access to vaccines.”

In the press conference, Smiley and others argued prioritizing essential workers to receive the vaccine is a racial equity issue: One in five U.S. workers are exposed to COVID at least once per month at their workplace, and one in 10 are being exposed at least once per week, she said. Workers of color are also more likely than white workers to have jobs that place them at higher risk of exposure to COVID. Industries like food and agriculture, manufacturing, retail and health and emergency response have the highest rates of COVID infection and death, and workers of color are overly represented in these fields.

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Andrea Dehlendorf, co-executive director of United for Respect, which elevates the voices of those employed in the retail economy, offered specific demands of the federal government to distribute vaccines to essential workers. These demands included that the Biden-Harris administration use “all available federal powers and tools to prioritize vaccines for essential workers, ensure essential workers can access the vaccine, and encourage uniformity in vaccine distribution efforts.”

Dehlendorf also called for the administration to fund vaccination education to address distrust of vaccines among communities and workers of color, and “ensure worker engagement and representation on the COVID-19 Response Team.”

Sarah, a member of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance’s We Dream in Black chapter and nanny in New York City for more than 16 years, also spoke at the press conference, detailing how receiving the vaccination would impact her and other care workers. “Getting the COVID vaccine would not only help me feel safe going to work; it would also give the family I work for peace of mind,” she said. “Many of my domestic worker peers feel the same way. Due to the nature of care work, most of us work in private households.” 

Sarah added that “the majority of domestic workers lack benefits or health insurance or any access to a basic safety net”—they rely on this work, even though it can potentially expose them to COVID infection and death.

Leaders of Thursday’s webinar acknowledged the rigorous effort required on the federal, state and local level to implement these changes and get vaccines in essential workers’ arms as quickly as possible, but expressed confidence the effort could be life-saving.

“If we as a society mobilize at all these different levels in order to make this a priority, our country will be safer, the people who provide us services and goods we need to function as a society will be safe,” Dehlendorf said. “And we’ll get through this pandemic more quickly as a healthy and strong community.”

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Kylie Cheung writes about reproductive and survivor justice, and is the author of Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy, available Aug. 15.