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I am an essential worker scared for my life every day with no extra pay or benefits for the risk | COMMENTARY

Hospital workers who clean and prepare exam and operating rooms are essential workers putting their lives at risk every day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hospital workers who clean and prepare exam and operating rooms are essential workers putting their lives at risk every day during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Elaine Smith // Flickr)

Before doctors and nurses can begin their work treating people receiving treatment for COVID-19, cleaners like me do the very hard and dangerous work of disinfecting and keeping every surface up to a critically safe standard. Our work is essential to reducing the spread of this disease and we are risking our lives every time we go to work, yet we receive no additional pay, benefits or protection.

I get teary eyed and emotional every time I leave the house, thinking I might not make it. I try not to think about how the color of my skin means I am already more likely to get sick and die since the virus is killing and sickening African Americans at higher rates than other races. There are times at work when I feel like I’m going to break down. I almost turn around to go home, but there’s no other choice.

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I already need help getting food as a single mother of two, with the added responsibility of caring for my 18-year-old sister. Every day, I consider the reality that if I get sick, there would be no money coming in for the bills or my children. If I get sick and have to leave my kids, who is going to help provide for them?

On top of the long hours, emotional pain and stress, I still have to teach two kids. This leaves me only a few hours to sleep each day. While working on the front lines to combat COVID-19 is affecting our families, essential pay would at least help us with the bills and help us feel appreciated. Providing cleaners essential pay for the additional level of risk would also help us stay on the job, and help us pay for the increasingly expensive price of getting to work safely. Many of us have to drive or take ride shares to avoid extra exposure on public transit, when it’s even possible after deep service cuts.

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We are desperately hanging on to our jobs while knowing it could get us, and our family sick, or even killed. Many of us who are without access to employer-provided health insurance would face the unthinkable if we were to get COVID-19. How would we pay for treatment and expensive hospital stays? That’s why it’s crucial for essential workers to maintain health insurance benefits during the pandemic.

Cleaners don’t just live in constant fear of contracting COVID-19 at work, but those who haven’t already been laid off because of the pandemic never know when they might lose their job as well. Cleaners are not highly paid to begin with. Now that we are paying the price with our health and lives, we should at least be paid our worth in return.

When Congress returns next week and begins work on a fourth bailout, they should consider workers like me who are on the front lines of this pandemic. Corporations were bailed out, it’s only right that the next bailout focus on struggling workers like me. This means essential pay and personal protective equipment for those of us who continue to go to work every day, and layoff protection for those who lose our jobs or hours and will be called upon to work once the economy reopens.

Essential workers are getting sick and dying as they work to keep others safe. We are scared and confused. It’s time for someone to help try to protect our lives and our livelihoods as well.

Annette Brown (allendarrin2@gmail.com) is an environmental services worker for South Baltimore County Medical Center Kaiser Permanente Medical Center who lives in Baltimore.

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