'I'm not ready to die': New 'essential workers' call for protections, hazard pay in coronavirus crisis

Newly-classified "essential workers" talk risking their lives for minimum wage.

April 17, 2020, 5:01 AM

David Williams described his wife of 19 years, Vitalina, as "the most wonderful lady on the face of the planet."

"Me being in love with her, I was just following the crowd," he said. "Because everybody loved her."

Vitalina Williams worked two jobs to make ends meet, at a Walmart and their local grocer, Market Basket in Salem, Massachusetts. As a newly-deemed "essential worker" during the novel coronavirus pandemic, she continued going to work even as COVID-19 made its insidious spread through the U.S.

On April 4, she died from the coronavirus at the age of 59. After falling ill just a week-and-a-half earlier, her condition quickly deteriorated. She was in the hospital by March 28 and on a ventilator shortly thereafter, her husband said.

Like many other essential workers, she paid the ultimate price for continuing to provide a crucial service during the pandemic. But unlike many of those traditionally deemed essential workers, this new group of workers deemed essential in the COVID-19 crisis generally makes lower wages, doesn't have benefits like paid sick leave, proper training or ready access to potentially life-saving personal protective equipment.

PHOTO: David Williams is pictured here with his wife of 19 years, Vitalina Williams.
David Williams is pictured here with his wife of 19 years, Vitalina Williams.
Courtesy David Williams

Vitalina Williams' husband said despite coming face-to-face with dozens of people every day, she was given almost no protective gear while working during the pandemic. Frontline medical workers and first responders have been struggling, massively in some cases, with access to PPE as well and many have died.

"Hindsight is 20/20. Yeah, I wish more was done," David Williams said. "I haven’t been wanting to preach at people that they should do the common sense things that they should be doing in the first place, but I guess I’m forced to."

"You start getting into the politics of things and so on, and I start shying away from it, that’s for wiser men than me to figure out," he said.

Still, he said, "I think workers should get P.P.E. [personal protective equipment] when they need it."

David Williams said he is speaking out about his wife's story now because he realized she is "one of many" and he hopes it will help put some protections in place for others.

Market Basket spokesperson Justine Griffin told ABC News in a statement that "the loss of Vitalina is a tragedy for our entire Market Basket family."

She said the supermarket chain has taken steps to protect workers and customers, including limiting the number of shoppers allowed in a store at one time, making gloves and protective masks available to associates who do not have their own, and installing plexiglass shields at checkout. The company said it has also implemented a heightened disinfection program for high-touch surfaces such as cash registers, countertops, register belts, baskets, carriages and more.

Walmart did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment Thursday, but on March 31 announced a series of new safety measures at all of its stores, including closing stores overnight for cleaning, installing sneeze guards at checkout lanes and pharmacy windows, wiping and spraying carts, and putting up signage reminding workers and customers to maintain social distance.

New class of 'essential workers' are 'risking their lives' for minimum wage with almost no protections

Vitalina Williams is one of the millions of newly-classified "essential workers" in the COVID-19 pandemic, who still have to come into work to support their families and keep the economy going while the country is being told to stay at home.

As a slew of typically low-wage workers are now risking their lives to feed the country, experts say more needs to be done to recognize the risks they are taking through benefits, pay and protections.

PHOTO: Vitalina Williams died of complications from COVID-19 on April 4.
Vitalina Williams died of complications from COVID-19 on April 4.
Courtesy David Williams

"Typically, when we think of a crisis and we think of personnel that are essential, we think of first responders, ambulances, police officers," Molly Kinder, a David Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institute, told ABC News.

"They are trained for this," she added. "We have systems set up to make sure they are taken care of first, [and have ] access to personal protective equipment."

Moreover, these traditional essential workers often have paid sick leave, union representation and other protections in place.

In this "unprecedented" coronavirus crisis, the definition of an essential worker has become much more expansive, according to Kinder.

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"It includes those first responders, but as you notice, it includes mail carriers and grocery cashiers, food preparers, package handlers, the workers that are showing up to deliver our meals at our home," she said.

"It is just such a wide range of workers, and many of them are low-wage workers," she added, "potentially up to half of them make under a living wage or close to that."

"Millions of them, a month ago when this pandemic hit, had no paid sick leave, uneven access to health insurance, and wages that did not even sustain a family," she said. "They're now going to jobs and risking their lives for $9, $10 dollars an hour."

The coronavirus pandemic has "put a harsh spotlight on how poor these conditions have been for workers that have a low wage," Kinder added. "And suddenly they are keeping the rest of us alive."

Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute, told ABC News that the pandemic hasn't "changed who's essential," but rather, "it's revealed it."

"These have long been the engines that drive our economy, the workers who stock our shelves, who pick up our garbage," she said.

"Everyone is sort of recognizing that in this moment these workers are providing services that we desperately need to keep our families fed, to keep our families healthy," McNicholas added. "These jobs have long been low-wage jobs, very difficult for these folks to access to a union to have representation."

As a result, many of these workers are still heading to public-facing jobs absent many protections -- from paid sick leave to basic protective equipment.

PHOTO: Cashiers stands behind a partial protective plastic screen and wear a mask and gloves as they work at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020, in Miami.
Cashiers stands behind a partial protective plastic screen and wear a mask and gloves as they work at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020, in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"We shouldn’t have workers on the frontline pay the price of that by having to go to work absent that gear," McNicholas said.

McNicholas said it's imperative that employers provide employees with "necessary protective equipment so that they can do their job safely and effectively" and that it's incumbent on the government to enforce this.

Nationally, there have been more than two dozen grocery workers who have died of the novel coronavirus.

Kinder said there has been a lot of frustration "that the Trump Administration has been very slow to put out federal guidelines for workplace safety standards" and that many states and in some cases employers have been left to set them up for themselves.

On Tuesday, the grocery chain Kroger and the UFCW, America's largest food and retail union, called for lawmakers to designate grocery workers as "extended first responders" amid the pandemic.

The groups said the new status would allow these frontline workers to gain priority access to personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

In the case of Vitalina Williams, Market Basket spokesperson Justine Griffin says the company has "implemented the same steps that we take with all reported cases." She added, "We also have now confirmed that two other associates from the Salem store have tested positive for COVID-19 and have quarantined themselves and their close contacts. We have reported this information to public health officials and followed their guidance and have brought in a specialized cleaning crew to clean and disinfect the store, as an added precaution."

PHOTO: A person picks up his order from the new Call Your Mother deli during its opening in Capitol Hill iN Washington, D.C., on April 15, 2020.
A person picks up his order from the new Call Your Mother deli during its opening in Capitol Hill iN Washington, D.C., on April 15, 2020.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via Newscom

On the death of Vitalina Williams the statement said, "A Guatemalan immigrant, her journey here embodied so much of what the culture of our own company personifies -- a hardworking, selfless and kind individual, who was always warm and helpful to others. Our more than 25,000 associates each share in a mutual respect for one another and during this time, equally share in the grief of the Williams family," Griffin added. "We offer our support to her family and coworkers during this difficult time. We have made counseling services available to any colleagues or family members in need."

Walmart said it would begin taking temperatures of all store associates when they report to work and is installing infrared thermometers at all locations. An associate with a temperature of 100 degrees "will be paid for reporting to work and asked to return home and seek medical treatment if necessary. The associate will not be able to return to work until they are fever-free for at least three days," the company said.

Masks and gloves will also be available "as supplies permit" for associates who wish to wear them.

'I'm not ready to die'

Maria Chavez, 62, from San Jose, California, said she has underlying health conditions including asthma but that she has still been going to her job at McDonald's amid the pandemic because she needs to be able to support herself.

Chavez said she fears going to work every day, telling ABC News, "We don't know what kind of people come to the store and we can get sick."

"I’m really afraid because I am 62 years old, I have problem with asthma and if I get the virus I don't think my body will receive it because I am old," she said. "I really don’t want to die. I’m not ready to die."

She said they didn't get any personal protective equipment -- from hand sanitizer to masks -- until after they organized strikes during the pandemic, and before that they were using dish soap to wash their hands.

Chavez is now advocating for hazard pay of $3 an hour on top of base pay "because of the risks we are taking when we go to work," and for paid sick leave if they are forced to quarantine or self-isolate.

David Tovar, the vice president of U.S. communications and government relations at McDonald's, told ABC News they were working "tirelessly" to change procedures and provide equipment to employees "to keep them safe in this unprecedented situation that we are in."

He said they have made at least 50 changes to procedures to keep employees safe, and that these were all decided and implemented as fast as possible.

"One of the challenges that we are having like a lot of companies when it comes to personal protective equipment is supply issues," he added, particularly for masks, but said that the restaurant Chavez works in is "supplied with all elements of PPE at this time."

"We’re spending a lot of time listening to our employees, we know they have concerns," Tovar said. "We know that we can’t do it without our employees, that’s why we are working as hard as we are to take care of them."

He outlined more of McDonald's efforts to help workers and the community in a blogpost here.

PHOTO: A United States Postal Service (USPS) worker works in the rain in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York, April 13, 2020.
A United States Postal Service (USPS) worker works in the rain in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York, April 13, 2020.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters

David Levine, a professor and the chair of economics of the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, said that paid sick leave for essential workers at a time like this should not come as an act of goodwill for these companies, but is in "everybody's interest."

"If they are left without paid sick leave, without access to health care, it makes everyone in this country unsafe," Levine told ABC News.

Kinder said hazard pay for essential workers in situations like this is also especially important because most of these newly classified essential workers were already barely earning a livable wage.

"This crisis has really revealed this gap in the value that these workers have brought to society and the wages that they get in return," she said. "I hope this is a moment of reckoning of how poorly these workers have been treated."

"The burden that we're asking so many millions of essential workers to carry for the rest of us falls often on those with the least," Kinder added. "The least respect, the least pay, the least everything, and now they are holding up the country for us."

When this pandemic is over, she said, "There is going to be a big question of are companies going to do right by their workers."

"If in the end, what we see is workers perishing in numbers that should never be happening and companies are not passing on the value of the business onto the workers risking their life," she said, "I think you are going to see a reckoning of basically capitalism getting this crisis wrong."

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Levine added that taking care of workers is also good for business in the long run, especially during a pandemic.

"In the next few months and maybe the next few years, the majority of businesses that serve customers will have to address the challenge of convincing those customers that they are being served in a way that doesn't put the customers' lives at risk," he said.

"That doesn't mean every business will act responsibly," Levine said. "But especially businesses that face customers and have a valuable brand, have a very strong incentive to avoid scandal.

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