Grocery Worker Chronicles During COVID-19

Editor's Note:

It's not heroic to continue to work at the grocery store during a pandemic, it's a part of the system that allows for many to be at greater risk of death for the extreme comfort of a few.

"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born"
-Antonio Gramsci

"Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind"
-Gwendolyn Brooks

The failure is not us, the failure is them!

This is another dispatch from the worker stocking shelves and selling groceries amidst panic and threat of debt. I have been coming into work every week and discovering new things to hate about the Rona 2020 saga. It is playing out like the most boring doomsday novel; only real people are suffering, and it looks like it will only get worse. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis are ever coming, and we, in the states, are only weeks deep in it. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that what is happening is f’d up and is unsustainable. For many no work=no rent, and if I don't have this month's $1200 rent, how will I have the accumulated rent of $3600 come June when the whack eviction moratorium ends. It's all just too much, and I should feel lucky because I am still working, but I don't, I hate it.

As I scroll my feeds of horror and anxiety, I have begun to recognize a pattern. This pattern has existed previous this mess, but it is compressed and recontextualized to fit the moment. This pattern is the perfected western approach to problems, and that is to blame the poor or black/brown, which more often than not intersect. I see it in my store, with who is shopping for others. I see it on my feed by chain posts directing folks away from a store because someone is rumored to have caught Coronavirus, and it worries me.

Governor Gavin Newsom asked those without work – more than 1 million people in California who have applied for unemployment benefits in the first two weeks alone – to get work on the front lines of service industry jobs deemed "essential." This is in reference to saving the economy. A shelter in place order was issued to protect public health. These two things are in complete contradiction with each other, and it is absurd to think we can even this unbalanced approach. It's like a teeter-totter going back and forth, but never equalizing. This system requires a complete overhaul, not small concessions. We are only treating symptoms which are multiplying. Governor Newsom mentioned that the state and the private sector are working in unison to find jobs during this time, with 70,000 mostly service industry jobs up for grabs. We don't need jobs; we need a real response to the crisis. Seventy thousand additional people without adequate healthcare cruising down the block dropping off door dash food are not going to help us.

Your problems are your own

When slavery was "abolished" or transformed, an argument floating around was that slaves had it better than the wage-worker of the era, for they were equipped with housing and food. Comparing wage/debt slavery to chattel slavery just should not be done. Enslaved people were not cared for, it was not a quaint stay at bed and breakfast. They subsisted on the smallest amount a person could to keep them alive - this was a subhuman condition.

The part I believe that was a warning but lost in this argument was that the way wage work, the type of work we all abide by, pushes a narrative of personal responsibility inside this illusion of choice and freedom. People were working in horrendous conditions and barely surviving. The warning was that you are not free if you MUST work to survive. This trick of the hand puts us all at odds with the natural way "work" should play out. If you pick fruit all day and can't afford fruit at the store, something is wrong. If a business exists because you and coworkers handle all the tasks, then there is no use for a boss or the owner. This contradiction existed before this pandemic.

What this moment shows us is that this system of commerce cannot keep us safe. It only exists through exploitation. This is why some of us are still heading into work or trying to work, not because we feel like this is our time to shine. There is nothing "heroic" about having to work in the service industry at this time. We are working because the bills they just keep on coming!

This "heroic" effort shown by the people making your egg McMuffin, the people packaging, and delivering your 3M mask from Amazon – these efforts are making the "shelter in place" orders less effective if at all. This forced work during a time where we should all be able to be inside with loved ones places the weight of the pandemic on the individual, making our problems our own. This game of opposites is in the vein of the latent or purposeful goal of wage work: to transfer all burden of failure, sickness, or poverty onto the worker as a personal misstep, not a systemic flaw.

I am worried because people separate themselves from the working populations and don't think about how a pandemic cannot be contained when a shitload of folks are still working or forced to work. I am worried because, at the risk of a slippery slope, I see the patterns leading specific populations to being disproportionately affected and infected, by COVID-19 and the public will not see this as a flaw in the system. The states' inadequate (an understatement) response to this crisis has lead the people to enact discipline through public shaming. I see it in remarks about people not staying indoors and fear it becoming an "unclean poor people, or brown folks narrative" because we are over-represented in the "essential" industries.

The west is famous for the ways in which it nefariously criminalizes its people. It has perfected the kind of hegemony that places the weight of its failures on the back of those affected by it. We have to account for everyone at this moment, not just those who can afford safety at this moment. You cannot choose who delivers your groceries or your pizza or who’s cleaning your work when you are gone, so we need to care about each person, or else this pandemic will still spread affecting the most vulnerable populations, those of the precarious class. This novel virus shook loose the madness that was ever present beneath the crust, along with the traditional fear of the other and scapegoating away a problem. What will it take for us to be reared into the position of voice and action? As a flood of corporate theft goes unnoticed, the people will continue to bear the brunt of this massive show of inequity amongst a theater of safety.

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