Philadelphia’s low wage workers show out at virtual town hall featuring City Council members
A group of close to 400 gathered to hear stories of how coronavirus has affected their work and its potentially dire consequences.
For just over an hour last Thursday, March 26, eight low-wage workers in domestic work, mass transit, and food service shared their coronavirus struggles with ten Philadelphia Councilmembers over Zoom as part of a virtual town hall.
But they weren’t the only ones.
In the chat of the conference — organized by the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) and a host of other local Philly organizations and attended by close to 400 — dozens of other workers in similar circumstances shared their stories.
The town hall had two demands of the attending lawmakers: the creation of an emergency mayoral fund for workers not eligible for state or federal aid, and expanded paid sick leave for all Philadelphia workers (including those that are part time).
As house cleaner María del Carmen Díaz raised her voice “for the 16,000 domestic workers in Philly who do not qualify for federal or state aid,” Tracy shared a similar experience with the chat as an aid in a home for mental health patients.
“Our work is of the utmost importance because we care for what is most treasured to people: their children, their grandparents, and their homes,” said Díaz.
The word others settled on was “essential.”
“Essential is the buzzword at the moment,” said nanny, Annie Johnson. “I am an essential worker.”
For her, that’s also meant, amid COVID-19, they’re the first to feel the effects of the pandemic.
Díaz said she’s lost all of her work because of the coronavirus shutdown. The cleaning cancellations started the same day the city first announced its shutdown.
Johnson’s work in homes has also dried up as her employers have told her not to come to their homes for fear of her bringing the virus.
But while loss of work and the lack of relief available when that happens are major issues, there are also very little protections for those that do still have to work with COVID-19 seemingly all around.
Take Dilcia de la Cruz’s situation. As a cleaner employed through ASPIRA, she works with a team to clean Olney Charter High School in North Philadelphia. After schools closed back in mid-March, her team was tasked with deep cleaning the school with some “heavy chemicals.”
“Everyone got sick,” she said.
And now, as a part-time worker, she also isn’t eligible for benefits or relief from her employer.
“We need laws to protect part-time workers in situations like these that are out of our hands,” said de la Cruz.
As an essential mass transit worker, Dee-Nice is also concerned about his well-being on the job, where there’s daily potential to be exposed to COVID-19.
He’s particularly confused how workers at his company’s headquarters are home, while he’s still deemed essential.
“We need them to be there for us,” said Dee-Nice.
Part of being there, he thinks, is making sure employees in his position are tested for coronavirus given their potential exposure.
But many people have also told him to just be grateful he has a job given the current economic climate.
“While I am grateful, some things need to be done,” he said.
His story fearing exposure is very similar to grocery store worker, Laura, and dog-walker and Uber driver, Brian Gallagher.
Laura said she often asks: “is the money worth it?” when clocking in.
“My mortality is a commodity to the company,” she said.
Her hopes are that she can get extra hazard pay given the circumstances, but isn’t hopeful that it’ll happen. Many of the labor relation agencies Laura could appeal to are also closed down as she still goes to work.
In Gallagher’s case, dog-walking is off the table, but he could still drive for Uber. He refuses to because of his asthma.
“I have no idea how I’m going to pay all my bills for however long this lasts,” he said.
In response, the ten city councilmembers, including Kendra Brooks, Helen Gym, María Quiñones-Sánchez, Isaiah Thomas, Jamie Gauthier, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Cindy Bass, Mark Squilla, Kenyatta Johnson, and Derek Green expressed support for the proposals and brought up ideas on how the conversations sparked by the virtual town hall could continue going forward and turn into legislation.
For Brooks, the stories shared were personal. A year ago, before she ran for office, she was a domestic and gig worker in the city.
“Every day since the beginning of this pandemic I’ve been reflecting back that a year ago, how would this have affected my family?” said Brooks.
Gauthier was keen to point out the hard truths the pandemic has forced society into confronting.
“All of the inequities we see that exist in our society on a good day, get amplified,” she said.
Gym echoed her statement, but stressed the need to unite to overcome the current struggles. In finding the point of unity, she harkened back to previous battles the group faced, such as the one waged for more than a year towards a domestic worker bill of rights.
“What did the fight look like before?” said Gym.
Currently, City Council’s fight against coronavirus has taken the form of an $85 million emergency spending bill that will cover some of the city’s operating costs amid the coronavirus.
Squilla called the bill a “band-aid” until money from the federal relief bill is allocated to the city.
Both Bass and Thomas also discussed the bill and the importance of getting all city workers aid during the coronavirus.
Bass sees the current situation as an opportunity to pass further worker protections amid the crisis.
“This is the moment to get that done,” she said.
Thomas was more realistic in his response to the group’s demands. He supports them, but said it would take time to plan out where to get the funds and how to get them out to constituents.
“There’s going to be a big gap between the time we have this call and the time somebody actually gets some dollars,” he said.
In the meantime, Thomas encouraged listeners to reach out to their councilmembers’ offices for immediate help, whether it be for food, utilities, housing and anything in between.
“We’re still here for them,” he said.
Where could those funds come from? The $85 million being voted on by City Council on April 2 is coming from the general fund.
Green suggested possibly reconvening discussions about the city’s budget to find funds for worker relief. He admitted it’s “a much different time” from when the Mayor held the introductory hearings for the budget and it needs to be looked at again.
He also encouraged organizers on the Zoom call to survey their members to get a clearer consensus of what the needs are.
“We are in a crisis and we don’t know when it will come to an end,” he said.
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting