Judging and shaming the less affluent is always repugnant behavior. But it is especially so in a time of pandemic. Yet that is exactly what is being done by some conservative politicians and business leaders. Even as medical experts are telling us the coast is not clear when it comes to COVID-19, some workers are being pressured to return to their jobs. And when they are reluctant to do so their motives are being judged.
It would be extremely easy to find more than a few people who are eager to get back to some semblance of “normal” life. Virtually no one likes the shelter-in-place lockdown that has been broadly imposed in many places in the United States and beyond. For most people, the social isolation has been a trying experience, even though necessary to inhibit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But conservatives are sure that slackers abound. Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently said, “A lot of [business] people are having trouble re-hiring workers because workers are saying to them, ‘I’m making more on unemployment.’” He essentially echoes the other Florida U.S. Senator and past Governor Rick Scott who earlier insisted, “If given the choice to make more on government program than on a job, some will…delay going back to work, hampering our economic recovery.”
Of course Florida politicians are not the only ones pointing fingers of judgement. It is happening in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia, and elsewhere. And threats are being made as well: Return to your jobs or risk losing unemployment benefits. Teresa Thomas Keller, the deputy director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said, “If there is a claimant out there that says, ‘You know what, I can make more money sitting at home, drawing this extra $600,’ and some other benefits, then if the employer will contact us, that is considered a refusal of civil work and we will cut off their benefits.”
Yet Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor, responded to the fact that more than 30 states will have started easing social distancing restrictions for coronavirus by the first days in May by saying that some are taking a “really significant risk” in doing so. Some states are reopening without having met federal guidelines. Dr. Fauci and other health experts fear such action could lead to a jump in infections and more deaths than predicted.
President Trump has been trying to normalize deaths caused by the coronavirus by comparing them to auto accident deaths, claiming that car-related deaths are “far greater than any numbers we’re talking about.” But, in fact, about twice as many American deaths have been caused by COVID-9 in three months than happen on U.S. highways in an entire year. More recently, Trump has said, “We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years.” Those who can read between the line can see his implication: workers who are not willing to put their lives on the line are deserters and cowards.
Laborers who had been considered relatively unimportant before the pandemic are now seen as essential, frontline workers. Not only are doctors and nurses risking themselves for the sake of others, those all along the food supply chain are doing the same, making themselves vulnerable to infection. From farmers, to truck drivers, warehouse workers, and grocery store clerks. Too many have fallen ill and died.
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Workers like those at the Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota were glad to have their jobs and wanted to return to the work they were doing. “I can’t wait to go back to work for the simple reason that this is the only thing that supports my family,” said Smithfield employee Achut Deng. But the plant became the center of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, with more than 700 cases linked to the plant.
Slaughter houses, meat packing companies and poultry plants in several states have been centers of coronavirus inflections and deaths. Christine McCracken, a meat industry analyst at Rabobank in New York, said, “If workers don’t feel safe, they may not come back, and we don’t have a large pool of people that are lining up to work in these plants.”
President Trump issued an executive order that could shield companies from lawsuits by employees who fall ill while cutting meat. The executive order declares: “It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” What is missing are mandated requirements insuring the safety of the workers. Optional guidelines are insufficient.
Recently, even as the pandemic was raging, the Department of Agriculture issued waivers allowing 15 poultry plants to increase their line speeds. “They prioritize line speed production and traffic over worker health and public health,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former high-ranking official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Many workers don’t want to risk their lives by returning to their jobs. They are not trying to get something for nothing, as conservative politicians suggest. Rather they reasonably believe that their health is worth too much for them to be jeopardizing it and that of their family members for a low paying job. Instead of sufficiently acknowledging the legitimate safety concerns of workers and the absurdity of expecting them to risk their lives for minimum wages or a little more, conservative politicians and their like-minded supporters choose to see these people as slackers who simply want to sit at home and collect unemployment checks.
Too often religious conservatives, particularly the politicians among them, are quick to judgmentally and self-righteously cite the scripture that says, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). It is always toward the less advantaged, never to the idle rich, that they aim this scripture. There is a vast difference between being unwilling to work out of laziness and an unwillingness to work during a pandemic in unsafe conditions for deplorably low pay. There is no room for judgmentalism toward workers if we love as we have been called to love by Jesus.
If essential workers on unemployment are getting paid more to stay at home than to go to work in conditions hazardous to their health, the problem is not with the workers. The problem is with the low pay and unacceptable working conditions. The shame should fall on those who are unconcerned about this state of affairs, not on workers who are being pressured to return to work. If contempt is to be heaped somewhere, let it not be on workers but on heartless politicians.