Once Called ‘Unskilled,’ Workers Now ‘Essential’

Jobs with JusticeJobs With Justice

By Finley Williams

Chicago, IL.

Labor organizer Ada Fuentes was raised in a working class family in the mostly immigrant community of Chelsea, Massachusetts, a densely populated city that sits
across from Boston on the low banks of the Mystic River.

Her mother spent long hours baking bread for nearby grocery stores, and, finding that insufficient, took on extra work as a domestic worker in the community, often
babysitting the children of women who had factory jobs. Her father, a union man with Sky Chefs, provided services as a handyman and plumber to supplement that income. Despite two working parents, Fuentes’ family could often only afford homes with
absentee landlords that lacked heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

Fuentes recalled her neighbors also working multiple jobs in order to subsist. They lived
frugally and garnished their meals by the salt of their sweat—labor was not merely a forty-hour-a-week excursion, but rather a deep necessity and a source of tremendous pride.

“I kind of grew up with the sense of, ‘This is how the world is, and we’re just scrappy and
we piece things together and try to make it on our own,’” she said.

But the unprecedented economic and social turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic has put the livelihoods and safety of millions of American workers like Ada’s family and neighbors at risk.

As many white collar workers took shelter from the coronavirus in the safety of their homes, some 50 million Americans, toiling in grocery stores, hospitals, and innumerable other industries, reported to work. These were the so-called “essential workers,” a group of laborers who were previously viewed as “unskilled” and “entry-level.” And now they were the only thing keeping the economy alive.

“When I started hearing people say ‘essential worker,’ I was like, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been saying the entire time. This is what workers who work in that industry have been trying to tell you, that their jobs, their literal jobs, are essential to the economy,’” said Fuentes, a senior membership organizer for the nonprofit Jobs with Justice.

The group has used this new spotlight on essential workers to help them organize for better protections and rights from companies that have offered them few benefits.

“There is a path forward with workers organizing themselves. We’ve been seeing a lot of really awesome worker organizing happening,” Fuentes said.

Willy Solis and Jeanine Meisner and the work they do to organize workers for Shipt, a Target-owned grocery delivery service, are an example of this momentum. Both are members of the Gig Workers Collective.

Much like Fuentes, Solis became involved with labor organizing when he witnessed firsthand the plight of Shipt workers during the pandemic, especially after the com-
pany sliced workers’ pay.

“I literally spoke to hundreds of shoppers back in February and got really, really upset hearing those stories about the pay cut and how people were getting impacted and hurt,” Solis said. It’s why he became the lead organizer representing Shipt shoppers for the Gig Workers Collective.

Solis said he took the unpaid position because of the leverage it afforded him in organizing with other gig workers.

An immuno-compromised Shipt shopper who’s extremely vulnerable to pneumonia, Solis himself has experienced the desperation Fuentes witnessed in Massachusetts. He carries out a strict sanitation regimen, which includes wiping down every surface he
touches, changing gloves every time he enters a store, and showering as soon as he returns home. It is his need for money that dictates his hours: “Sometimes I go out as
late as 10 or 11 depending on the day or depending on how much money I need.”

Citing an instance where Shipt was unresponsive to the concerns he brought forth regarding PPE and lowered pay, Solis said that Shipt shoppers and other gig workers are disrespected by the companies that employ them, especially under the current circumstances.

“The fact that the companies are not responsive to our concerns and our vocalization of
the issues does give you nothing but the feeling of being slapped in the face repeatedly,” he said. “The CEOs of these companies are definitely not the ones out there doing this job on a daily basis and exposing themselves and their families to this, yet they want to continue to give us pay cuts repeatedly over the course of a pandemic. To put it bluntly, it’s despicable.”

However, a Shipt spokesperson told The Princeton Summer Journal, “Our updated pay model takes into account the many factors that go into a shop, such as estimated drive time, the number of items in the order, peak shopping windows and location, that can affect the effort needed to shop and deliver an order. With this new model, the majority of approximately 50 metropolitan areas across the country have seen shopper
base pay remain steady, while some metros have even seen an increase.”

Shipt also said it provides safety kits for its most active shoppers and those in high-risk areas, adding that Shipt shoppers can obtain masks and gloves at Target stores.

Public awareness and responsiveness to the risk workers are taking has also diminished as more cities and states push to reopen. Solis remembered the beginning of the coronavirus shutdowns—the outpouring of support was almost “surreal.”

“[But now] that we’re moving away more from the first parts of the pandemic, that sense of heroic effort on our part has seemed to be kind of dwindling away slowly and people are going back to viewing the position as one of a basic service,” he said.

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