We’ve come to understand the importance of adhering to social distancing guidelines for our physical safety, as well as the true impact lack of interaction can have on us on our mental health. For many, social distancing is made possible by working from home, internet to stay connected to loved ones, safe and stable homes, and contactless delivery services. Unfortunately, everyone does not have the same circumstances; as it has been said, we’re in the same storm but different boats. Proper safety protocols are necessary to stopping the spread of this virus, so it is critically important that we remove the barriers to following CDC safety guidelines. The reality is that housing, work circumstances, personal health, and location in the world all affect the reality of social distancing and the level of risk we experience within it. 

Behind the Barrier: Social Distancing for Essential Workers

Isolating yourself completely from contact and risk requires resources: within your home, within your employment, and within the capacity of your income.Only 7% of laborers in the United States have the ability to work from home, largely white-collar professionals and the highly paid, according to the 2019 National Compensation Survey. Those deemed “essential workers” help everyone else stay home by working in shipping warehouses, grocery stores, medical and nursing facilities, and other essential services. An estimated 53 million people in the United States are considered essential workers, of which 54%  are people of color and a majority are women, in all sectors. 

Their labor works to keep everything running and everyone safe. As the name suggests, we need these people to NOT stay home. With safe housing, private transportation, and proper safety protocols on the job, essential workers can mitigate their added risks. However, these ideal circumstances don’t represent the reality for most essential workers. Essential workers are low-wage workers, and they are often living in over-crowded, intergenerational homes and are among the highest risk in our society. That means many of the people working with other people are living in communities similar to the one that we serve, and our direct service radius has many essential workers who are put in impossible situations.

What does this look like for individuals and what are people’s options? 

This crisis has shown us so clearly who is essential to our world. The workers who sustain us have a unique connection to social distancing, the safest thing we can do for the future of our world. People have very limited options and many risk factors to accompany them. Factors that impact essential workers ability to social distance and stay safe:

  • Income level: People with higher income can afford to minimize risk through contactless food delivery from grocery stores and restaurants. An income level that allows you to build savings also allows you to purchase items in bulk, minimizing the need to grocery shop at all. This helps reduce risk outside the job and improve one’s ability to comply with social distancing. In Chicago, “one in four (26.8 percent) essential workers live in census tracts that have a median household income at least 30 percent below the regional median” (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning), which includes Englewood. According to a recent Washington Post article, essential workers are some of the lowest paid laborers in our society, due to factors including the perception of many of these jobs as “entry level” or “unskilled”  and entrenched power differentials. This means the financial safety does not exist for many of our essential workers, adding another barrier to meeting a family’s needs without risk of infection. 
  • Transportation: Essential workers must travel back and forth from work, many not securing high enough salaries to afford to do so without public transportation. Share riding as an option is too expensive and many people don’t own their own cars, again because of expenses. Before this pandemic, I Grow Chicago routinely provided bus cards and Lyft rides to our community due to the high level of transportation barriers. The community we serve largely did not have access to a reliable transportation outside of the CTA, BEFORE the pandemic. Now, with the increased risk associated with public transportation, those who must commute are put in even more danger. Further, more than half of the city’s jobs are downtown (Crain’s), requiring many of our community members to commute 8 or more miles to get to work, lengthening the time of increased exposure and risk. 
  • Safety procedures on the job: Not all jobs are able to provide the gear that is required to keep someone safe and many people can’t afford it on their own. Warehouses have been places where the virus spreads quickly, as people are in close quarters, unsafe conditions, and do not have the protective gear within CDC guidelines. Even with the protective gear, there is still a risk and it is not the ideal situation for people interacting with others. This has recently been a source of numerous worker’s rights lawsuits and protests, with workers citing a lack of access to safety equipment, unreasonably long shifts, overcrowded warehouses, and inadequate sick leave policies (The Guardian).
  • Overcrowded and intergenerational housing: Many essential workers come from communities like the one we serve, where people live in intergenerational homes. The majority of homes within the community we serve are intergenerational. Limiting interactions with other people is nearly impossible, as travel requires interaction and homes are usually full. Many homes are often overcrowded. People often can’t afford to move out of their family homes, and most homes are owned by the elders of our community. According to a recent article from ProPublica Illinois, the zip code we serve, 60636, has one of the highest infection rates of infection, with 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases for every 1,000 residents, despite low population density in the neighborhood. This is partly because of overcrowding in homes, which prevents proper social distancing and puts all the loved ones of essential workers at additional risk.
  • Job security and benefits: Low wage and hourly positions don’t often allow for enough income to build up savings, as most people working in these positions are providing for more than just themselves. Staying at home would mean not receiving wages and living off savings, what the majority of essential workers can not afford to do. Due to the nature of hourly pay positions, getting sick means no income for these workers and can be the end for any income for them and their families. Since low-wage workers don’t make enough to have savings, this can mean an end to any source of financial support within a household. With the vast majority of essential workers making less than $15/hour and workers being at risk for termination if they speak up (New York Magazine), many people feel like they must show up to work no matter the safety conditions or their personal health. Essential workers are rarely receiving benefits like health insurance either; getting sick for them really can be a death sentence. If people are able to go to the hospital and make it through the virus, they will be saddled with high costs they can’t afford. Lack of job security and benefits of hourly and low-wage jobs forces people to make a choice between their life and their livelihood.
  • Striking and organized labor: Due to the lack of safety for essential workers, many have chosen to strike on May 1st. This option shows the gravity of the situation and can put power back into the worker’s hands, away from the corporation. But it puts people in danger. Not working means no wages to take care of your household and being involved in a protest can mean gathering in public (increased risk for contraction of the virus) or there is potential for a violent response from law enforcement, the government, or other individuals.  

These decisions are difficult for any family; No one wants to put the people they love at risk. But the reality for so many people is that there isn’t much of a choice without high risk. For our community, that’s on top of all the existing barriers and risks we’ve battled before the pandemic. This becomes an impossible situation. 

What does this look like for the public? 

We are interdependent, and those with the least are often those who are pushed to work the most. They put themselves at risk, so that the rest of the country can stay safe. While there has been abundant “hero” rhetoric around these workers, the material conditions of essential workers’ lives show us how much they are victimized and villainized in reality. Essential jobs have been historically devalued and were never considered “hero” jobs; delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, and factory laborers were rarely referred to as heroes and never in the scale they are now. Unfortunately, a “hero” salary is not enough for paid time off to tend to a sick family member or staying home when you think someone in your home might be sick. 

It is time to recognize that essential work doesn’t have to be a heroic sacrifice. With resources, equitable wage, health insurance and benefits, and TRULY valuing our workers as heroes, we can greatly reduce essential workers’ risk and facilitate more social distancing practices. Their safety is our safety; sick people handling food and deliveries does not bode well for those receiving it. This puts all of us at risk because they are among the highest risk population and the largest population to be in contact with others. 

What is I Grow Chicago doing? 

Our response has been to keep our community as safe as possible, while keeping in mind that the ideal situation of practicing social distancing by staying at home isn’t an option. We have passed out the following safety equipment to homes on 25 blocks in West Englewood:

  • 270 face shields
  • 2,108 protective face masks
  • 8,400 medical gloves
  • 262 bottles of hand sanitizer
  • 419 bars of soap

To keep people educated on their options for support and safety, we have created and distributed 3,550 educational flyers alongside 120 copies of South Side Weekly. 

Since 73% of our community does not have employment outside of I Grow Chicago, we have continued and expanded our community employment. Our afterschool tutoring team continues to operate over the phone, along with virtual programming, our gardener continues in our community garden, any Peace House workers we had around the house have worked on deliveries of basic needs and flyers. We have intentionally refused to cut hours or pay for the duration of this crisis. For those who are unemployed, we continue our job and resume support over the phone, serving 11 people to date. 

The work we do is to give people a fighting chance. Our goal is self-determination within our inhabited reality. We know that there are things stacked against them, the barriers our community faces are unlike many other communities. But we also know this is not how it has to be. Our essential workers are heroes; that is undeniable during this pandemic. We have the ability to treat them as such. We have the ability to support them. We can treat our essential workers like the heroes they are, and we can change this reality. 

How you can help:

Continue to support our efforts by donating to our No Life is Expendable campaign, where every donation no matter the size will be matched by $100 until May 20! This campaign is rooted in our values: When we all give what we can, we create a more loving and sustainable world. All we ask is that you share what you can, whether it’s $15, $150, or $1,500, or a message to your friends to contribute. 

Special thanks to our ongoing safety partners:

  • Lyft who donated ride credits so we can help our neighbors get around with as little interaction with others as possible. 
  • Alderman Lopez who has printed all of our thousands of flyers we have distributed to our community.  
  • UChicago Medicine who donated masks and gloves to distribute within our community.