Every night, from 7:00pm to 7:02pm, it begins. There’s hooting and hollering, whistling, horn-blowing, the banging of pots and pans, beeping from passing cars, and even a parked car backfiring over and over and over again. Interrupting the sirens of ambulances, these are attempts by the residents who are advised and able to stay home, to support those who are not.
Timed to coincide with the evening shift change at hospitals, this noise-making is specifically a salute to our nurses and doctors and other medical professionals who are risking their lives to save lives, and dying at alarming rates. But other, less visibilized workers are also on the frontlines and face equal if not greater risk. These other essential workers outlined herein point to the ills that are foundational to our existing society while also illuminating future directions that, if taken seriously, promise to better protect us all going forward.
New York City is the epicenter of the unprecedented public health crisis spanning the globe right now. As we enter our 5th week (according to city government), emerging narratives and analyses highlight the predictably uneven nature of the crisis. For example, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) spatialized data from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to show that “high rates of positive COVID-19 cases are concentrated in neighborhoods where many of New York’s frontline service workers reside.” These neighborhoods are also disproportionately communities of color, and characterized by high rates of rent burden, revealing the ways that COVID-19 are amplifying existing inequalities.
ANHD defines frontline service workers broadly and in line with New York State’s definition as “an aggregate of workers employed in… Healthcare Support, Food Preparation and Serving, Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance, and Transportation and Material Moving Occupations.” This includes the persons checking you out at the grocery store and restocking the shelves, preparing your meds for pickup at the pharmacy, packaging your FreshDirect orders at the warehouse, whipping up and delivering comfort food from your favorite restaurant, maintaining transit options and continuing to clean public spaces for those of us who still need to move around, and more.
Many of these positions are also low wage and precarious work, and lack benefits like health care or retirement options. Making rent, purchasing metrocards, buying food, and securing other basic needs for themselves and their families are a monthly and daily struggle. The time spent obtaining enough money to meet these needs also means less time and capacity for other basic human needs like rest and sociality. The COVID-19 crisis did not spark their insecurity or anxiety about maintaining their lives and the lives of their families and their communities; and a return to normal does not translate to renewed security. Insecurity is their norm, rather than novel.
Many of these workers, and their everyday struggles, are also typically invisible. You may be thinking, “But I tip really well..” or “I am always friendly with the person checking me out”, or other ways that you personally try to make people feel seen and recognize their labor. But politically, in the eyes of the US government and mainstream discourse and policy decisions, they are invisible, and in fact, this is the root of the insecurity they experience ongoing. And this is only the baseline, and does not begin to acknowledge the even greater invisibility and precarity of those who are non-English speaking and/or considered “undocumented”.
The current political response to the crisis evidences this broader reality and exacerbates it. Where are the increased wages and canceled rent to mitigate fears about maintaining housing and feeding family members? Or the state- or employer-provided PPE to reduce the rate of infection and spread related to these workers? What about enforcing paid sick leave, ensuring infected workers can fight off the virus at home while refraining from spreading to others? Instead, we see the state offering security to property owners and businesses, while critical resources like Medicaid — which fund public hospitals that primarily serve lower-income households — are being cut. At best, the state’s response seemingly appeases the concerns of the professional class, while compounding the existing threats to well-being for working-class neighbors.
This omission of political recognition and support for these workers becomes further glaring when we consider the crucial societal function of this work. Sometimes described as “unskilled”, there would quite literally be mass breakdown without them. A recent NYTimes oped seemed to drill this home by describing both the societal function and ongoing precarity and invisibility of the 2.5 million farmworkers in the US. Though these workers are not generally considered to be a part of the city’s geography or imaginary, it is their labor that initiates the food supply chains through which we secure nourishment. As the author states, “No food workers, no food. It’s that simple.” And yet, as the article describes, our farmworkers regularly lack access to healthcare, decent living conditions, rest, and more — and so far, that has not changed even though risks are currently amplified.
Similarly, without our neighbors to ship food to stores, stock shelves, and check out customers, the buildings that we call “grocery stores” would be useless. All of our well-being — including our ability to care for ourselves and each other and the broader maintenance of society — rests on this work. This is always true, but with the ousting of so many of us from the public sphere, there is a different kind of visibility for those that fulfill these roles.
Though political invisibility was never acceptable, and many of us have been fighting against that long-standing, it should certainly not be a reality now as we collectively fight off a global contagion. Nor should it be a part of the future world we are assembling right now. Instead, we must erect a state of care; a state of collectivity where the care work and maintenance work that is central to all our lives, is recognized and at the very least, adequately compensated so that everyone — and especially those upon which we all rely — can enjoy a sense of security and dignified quality of life.
But really, what I’m asking for is more than that. The state of care that I envision is about redefining what is valued in our society. We cannot continue to build a world where our society places more value on the exclusive profiteering practices that benefit a 1% subset. Rather, the emphasis should be placed on the labor that sustains us all, and our neighbors who fulfill that need.
Importantly, a state of care would be different from the Welfare State. A Welfare State creates social protections that aim to mitigate the ills of a harsh and punishing capitalist society, without fundamentally changing its form or function. A political economy focused on plundering earthly resources for exclusionary, monetary gain and stockpiling will not help us address the crisis that is here, or those that are coming — as climate change advocates have noted repeatedly for decades. Moreover, historically the welfare state has done far too little, if anything, to support many essential workers. For example, agriculture workers were excluded from the benefits outlined in The New Deal. In insulating a capitalist political economy, the welfare state also protects individualism, competition, and a system where there are winners and losers, and division.
Rather, a state of care would center our interdependence on one another, and the ways in which our individual well-being is inherently bound up with all our neighbors — a truth that can no longer be ignored or masked by rhetoric. It would rely on our ability to cooperate with each other, placing us all on the same side in the face of future crises. Somehow, we must move towards this world; and it can begin by realizing the crucial and sustaining work which is so evident at this moment. It can begin with cheering for the grocery worker alongside the nurse and doctor, and acknowledging that both are risking their lives to save lives. And it can continue with advocating for political visibility for these neighbors, and a revaluing of our society; one that recognizes the value of the grocer and farmworker and warehouse worker and their contributions to collective well-being more than the stockbroker who, on the contrary, siphens value out of society for a select few.
Ideally, a state of care would ultimately realize cooperative forms of stewardship over the means of production, and technology, and land, which would mirror, and be the manifestation of its distinct values. Alternatively, individualized forms of ownership would slowly cease to make sense, as their underlying anti-social and isolating nature would properly be recognized as unhealthy — for individuals and the collective. In placing value on all lives and our relationships with each other and ourselves, warehouses for people — meaning jails and prisons and detention centers and shelters and the like — would close down and more emphasis placed on finding meaningful roles in our communities and the broader web of interrelations between them. And these communities and relationships would be at our center — and this is why the nomenclature “state of care” rather than “Care State”. The State as we know it today is in fact a product of a capitalist (and colonial) political economy and must itself be de- and re-constructed in its own right.
At this point, and perhaps especially in this moment of crisis, we have seen what capitalism can do for us. And really, this crisis is laying bare all its utter failings. Now (though really many, many, many moons ago) is the time for a new model. May these lessons implore us to pursue an alternative collective trajectory and to realize a better world and a better version of humanity.