By Dorothy Wigmore
“We’re all in this together,” was the message in March.
But it soon became clear the pandemic ocean has different boats. Some people are on yachts. Others are in leaky rowboats. Others are just trying to hang onto anything that floats.
Public health officials warn about “close contact” and crowded, enclosed spaces. That’s everyday life for some workers, including school staff, who are not on “essential” worker lists. Nonteaching staff are often invisible to decision-makers and researchers.
Many essential workers are in the leaky boats or worse.
The pandemic has exposed long-standing systemic racial, economic, gender, health, social and class inequities in the United States and increased record wealth and income inequality levels. These social or corporate “determinants of health” are interconnected and make people more vulnerable to job-related and other health problems.
These inequities are revealed in numerous ways, including:
• “Essential workers” are likely to be low-income, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), rely on public transportation, live in dense housing, have underlying disabilities, no benefits and less access to health care.
• Women hold one in three “essential” jobs, many low-income. BIPOC women fare worse than whites. Younger workers also bear the brunt of unemployment and low-wage essential jobs.
• Black, Latinx, Asian-American, Native American, migrant, and low-income Americans—including children—are most affected by COVID-19. Inequities in COVID-19 death rates are increasing, especially among young Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Natives.
• Without government action, workers have little or no protection from the virus, many fear asking questions, and whistleblowers face retaliation and firing.
• Workers’ OSHA complaints are “canary in the coal mine” warnings. Between April and August, the more than 350% rise in pandemic-related complaints preceded increased cases and deaths by about two weeks.
• It’s a two-way street: community infections get into schools and other workplaces, and people infected at work take the virus home.
NJEA members fought for things such as income for paraprofessionals and bus drivers, multiple food pick-up sites, fair grading and internet access.
“I saw the sobering reality of people’s lives,” says NJEA member and special education teacher Andrea Levine. “I was in my students’ homes for the first time (virtually). I could see some of what they were dealing with, and I often heard ‘My cousin/brother/sister needed the computer, so I couldn’t do my work.’”
“I feel really impacted by the wealth disparity,” she says. “Like, how Jeff Bezos made $113 billion while my students who were home had to walk to their bus stop at 5:30 a.m. so the bus driver or aide could deliver their crisis food boxes.”
Like most support staff, those bus drivers cannot work remotely. That’s why Chrissy Kosar worked on NJ 21 United’s #NotUntilItsSafe campaign.
“IT (information technology) staff have to ensure people can stay online, secretaries were putting packets together for those who aren’t online, custodians came in to clean,” she says. “We’re the lowest paid and the lowest everything on the totem pole. We can’t protect ourselves adequately, but we have to go to work.”
“If I decide to take time off because of not feeling safe, it’s an unpaid leave of absence,” says the bus driver and vice president of the Washington Township Schools Supportive Services Personnel Association. “For FMLA, you have to work a certain number of hours. Districts are very good at keeping their support staff under these parameters so they’re not eligible.” (In October, South Jersey NJEA members successfully helped oppose the Evesham Township district’s attempt to reduce paraprofessionals’ workdays—and their eligibility for health benefits. See Page 14.)
Many people Kosar talks with are “scared but quiet. They don’t want to be the one who rattles the cage.” She also noticed that staff in more affluent districts have better protective equipment.
She only has a district-supplied reusable cloth mask and a very thick, expensive plastic shower curtain for behind her seat. The district also gave bus drivers garden sprayers to disinfect her bus twice a day—illegal under New Jersey rules.
“It’s worrying. You don’t know the long-term effects of the virus itself or the products we’re using,” she says.
It’s the same for many school staff. They are expected to clean and disinfect without knowing the hazards of what’s used or how it should be applied (e.g., cleaning before disinfecting). Assured toxic products are “safe,” they have no respirators. The “botanical” disinfectant Kosar uses has several toxic ingredients.
Levine has been active through Maplewood South Orange’s (MapSO’s) “Teaching for Black Lives” Working Group, NJ21 United, and her local association’s health and safety committee.
“Ask questions. Be persistent. Find your ‘marigold’ teachers and staff,” Levine says. “Make space and uplift Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) racialized voices, queer voices, people with disabilities. Fumble through your words. Apologize. Try again. Start an online book club with co-workers. Read racial justice and equity books like Imbram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist. Reflect.”
“Marigold” teachers and staff are those who offer positive energy and support to their colleagues, much as gardeners often plant marigolds to protect other plants in their gardens.
“We need time and space to get all staff on the same page,” she adds. “It takes communication, relationship-building and respect for each other. We need to make this a community effort.”
Other possibilities include:
• Develop “equity lenses” for union and health and safety activities (e.g., the OHS Vulnerability Measure—see the sidebar.)
• Look for and support community efforts tackling inequities, particularly for schools.
• Support effective use of the mandated Amistad and LGBTQ curricula.
• Use and share NJEA materials about cleaning, disinfecting and workers’ rights.
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, “stress” and education. A Canadian, she has worked also in the U.S. and Mozambique. Her focus is on solving job-related hazards through prevention and worker participation.
About one-third of educational support staff (ESP) staff in NJEA are not white. BIPOC and Latinx ESP members outnumber whites members who are ESP in many large local unions such as Atlantic City, Camden, Elizabeth, Irvington, Montclair, New Brunswick, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Plainfield, Pleasantville, East Orange Maintenance Association, Jersey City Para-professional Association, Paterson Food Service Association, and some smaller locals such as Asbury Park Education Association, Bridgeton School Education Association, North Bergen, Passaic County Community College Admin Association, and Roselle Education Association.
When it comes to racial and ethnic demographics among educators, the state only keeps detailed track of “certificated” staff—all overwhelmingly white. Only 6.6% of teachers statewide are Black. More than 270,000 Black and Latinx students attend schools that are more than 90% nonwhite.
NEW – Disinfecting can be hazardous to all staff and students
Abolitionist Teaching Network
Garden State Equality, Make it Better for Youth (free lesson plans and resources):
MapSO Freedom School
NJEA Equity Alliance
OHS Vulnerability Measure
Amistad Curriculum materials