Guest column by Donna Haghighat: Who gets protection on the pandemic frontlines?

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    Karen Kubasek, right, wears a mask and gloves while working the checkout counter at Foster Farrar, a hardware store in Northampton, Monday, Mar. 23, 2020. According to Gov. Baker's non-essential services order, hardware stores are deemed essential and can remain open. Karel Rescia, who is the co-owner and manager, said she has noticed a decline in business and that "people don't linger. They're getting exactly what they need and then going." gazette file photo

Published: 4/20/2020 8:34:52 AM

As the COVID-19 virus rages across an unprepared country and states compete against each other in the race for elusive personal protective gear, the question of just who needs the protective gear is being taken as a given — first responders and frontline medical staff.

Who this answer leaves out is all of those deemed essential in the retail and food industries — the folks who are ringing up your groceries or your pharmacy purchases, serving you at the drive-thru or bringing your essential needs curbside.

These other frontline workers, the ones who are interacting with hundreds of people each day, are vulnerable and least in a position to ask for that critical protective gear. This gear will protect them, but it will also help to stop the spread of the disease to others. While recent federal legislation has provided sick time specific to the COVID-19 outbreak, these workers are generally not allowed paid sick or family leave and are most likely to come to work even if they may have mild symptoms. With the shortage of tests, many may also be asymptomatic but be carriers of the virus.

These individuals, all low-wage workers, 66% of whom are women, many of whom are from marginalized communities, are not being given gloves or masks but are interacting with hundreds of individuals in close proximity on a daily basis. We are endangering them greatly as well.

Were the workers who waited on you wearing masks and gloves when you last visited the grocery store, pharmacy, drive-thru or restaurant? In our own experience, most were not. Of those that were wearing protective gear, were all of their similarly positioned coworkers given the same gear? In our experience this was not the case.

Who had the gear fell across racial and gender lines with women, particularly women of color, being forced to work without that gear. It should be noted that these are the very same low-wage workers who many thought unworthy of a $15 or higher minimum wage. Now we are all collectively relying on them for so much and they are risking their safety and economic security to take care of us.

What are the options to address this? If we punish the stores that don’t give masks and gloves to their employees by taking our business elsewhere, we know these workers will suffer reduced hours and/or termination. This is not the solution. Instead, local, state and federal guidelines should require that these workers be given protective gloves and masks at the expense of the employer, not the worker who finds herself at the frontlines of a pandemic while trying to keep her job, support her family and help us all.

Particularly amidst changing recommendations on who should wear protective gear and what constitutes protection — all citizens are, as of this writing, being urged by the CDC to wear something that protects their nose and mouth when in areas people tend to congregate — we must ensure that those who are handing us our takeout food, our prescriptions or our groceries, are protected from contracting and spreading this disease without having to bear the cost and stress of finding this gear themselves.

In recent weeks, our partner at Universal Plastics, co-owner Pia Kumar, saw this call to action and requested the Women’s Fund help in aiding those who need protection. To this end, Universal Plastics has manufactured a line of masks and connected with the Pioneer Valley Project to disseminate them to those who otherwise would remain unprotected.

This illustrates how business leaders and public officials alike might rise to the challenges presented by COVID-19. In this time of crisis, we have an opportunity to make meaningful changes that protect our society’s most vulnerable and essential individuals.

Donna Haghighat is the CEO at the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts.

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