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Not Just Another Labor Day

The strength, prosperity and well-being of our country are in peril. Black women essential frontline workers who risk their lives to protect it need real change, not chump change.

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woman, mask, essential worker, pharmacist
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I just unpacked and washed off my groceries a little while ago. Earlier, when pushing my cart toward the produce aisle, I saw that the store had T-shirts on display. They were black, splashed with showy white words forming a cloud that spelled out “nurse’s aide,” “cashier,” “paramedic,” “teacher” and other job titles, along with “heroes,” “essential workers,” “thank you,” and “you rock!” I found this to be an unlikely display of social consciousness for a supermarket. Then I realized the shirts were offered in the “seasonal” section, along with cookout essentials like s’mores ingredients, paper plates and bug spray. Ahhh. Festive apparel for Labor Day weekend.

The market was crazy crowded, even for a Saturday. I advanced from fourth in line for the cashier to the first socially distanced floor decal. Meanwhile, a masked sister with expressive brown eyes and an associate’s badge caught my distracted gaze on its way from the tabloids to the cold soda. Then she coaxed my attention, using her own gaze, to something on my left. I didn’t follow. She wordlessly added a slow head tilt and a tiny pivot at the waist. That’s when I saw that another cashier was about to open, but he hadn’t yet turned on the lane light. I thanked her as I made a beeline to the conveyor belt, where the plexiglass panel erected for his “protection” was only slightly wider than the brother’s shoulders. Even narrower would be the chance that these two are receiving hazard pay for the risks they take serving the public.

On the drive home, I passed a subacute care facility and a physical rehabilitation center. Both had those lawn signs announcing “Heroes Work Here!” that proliferate like mushrooms after a summer rain.

Work. That’s what we’re discussing here. That’s what I’m doing right now, from the comfort of my home, as a teleworker.

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 Moments ago, facing writer’s block and a Monday morning deadline to get this pre-Labor Day story in, I procrastinated by replying to some reader email. A North Carolina sister named Laverne, who works as a paramedic, shared that even though she enjoys reading this newsletter, she struggles to find the time to do so. I thanked her for being a part of the Sisters community, and for continuing her critical work as a first responder during these difficult times.

As I hit “send,” I couldn’t help thinking about Breonna Taylor, who did similar lifesaving work as an emergency medical technician before her life was stolen by police bullets. I thought about the folks who answered my own 911 call last fall when I had a bad reaction to a prescription. My thank-you to Laverne had been heartfelt, but it somehow felt lame.

This is the part of the article where I click on a page in another window, look at data I’ve pasted there, and paraphrase statistics from think tanks, news reports and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. I’ll keep it brief. It’s stuff we already know, because it’s about our own. A disproportionate number of Black workers, especially women, hold “essential” but undervalued jobs such as nursing assistant and home health aide. Many don’t earn enough to make ends meet. Black people are 13 percent of the workforce. But 19 percent, almost 1 out of every 5 frontline essential workers, is a Black person earning less than $16.54 an hour, the living wage for a family of four. (The sister who saved me from that long line today likely makes around $12 hourly, according to statistical averages for her work.)

Worse, many lack benefits such as health insurance or paid leave — even though their work serving the public puts them at higher risk of infection during a pandemic that’s disproportionately killing people of color. Black and Hispanic/Latinx people ages 45-54 are dying at rates at least six times as high as white people in the same age group. Professionals such as pharmacists and teachers also risk exposure on the job site.

Black women are also overrepresented in industries like retail, transportation and food services — areas hit by forced closures. And we’re at the edge of a canyon-like pay gap that’s likely to widen during the economic crisis, earning an average of 62 cents for every dollar a white man earns.

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  That’s what I want America’s employers and policy makers to be thinking about, as Labor Day weekend rolls around. The first Monday in September marks “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The strength, prosperity and well-being of our country are in peril. Black women are risking — and losing — their lives to protect it. They need real change, not chump change. They need PPE, hazard pay, a living wage, health benefits, pay equity, enforcement of safety protections. They need protection against retaliation for speaking out and making these needs known. They need safe and affordable child care. They need time off, and transparency about workplace COVID-19 exposure. They need and deserve respect. 

What Black women don’t need is to be splashed with showy white words.

This is not the time for optics — T-shirts, TV spots, applause, social media memes, signs, banners or meager philanthropic contributions announced with big fanfare. It’s time for overhaul.

We. Are. Tired.

And what I want my sisters thinking about, as the weekend nears, is rest. Enjoy the other stories in this issue — popular pieces we’re republishing for busy readers like Laverne, who may have missed them. We’re also rerunning these favorites so that the Sisters team can take a little break­­­ too.

Rest up, Sis. Then get ready to raise your voice about workplace issues and rally your crew to vote. We’ve got work to do.

Stay safe and sane,