Since the spring of 2020, COVID-19 has disrupted our social and economic order. One of the unraveling consequences of the historic changes wrought by the pandemic is the grossly uneven gendered and racialized nature of those shouldering the burden. Across all labor and occupational sectors, frontline workers and essential service providers have become sacrificial beasts of burden. They range from retail store employees, waiters, transit providers, farmworkers, meat packers, delivery personnel, to all cadres of service providers at the middle and bottom of the hierarchical pyramid of health care – registered nurses (RNs), practical nurses, personal support workers (PSWs), living-in caregivers and janitors.
Despite the diversity of these occupational and labor categories, they are dominated mainly by Black and other racialized, mainly new immigrant, populations. In the context of the health care sector, the so-called frontline workers are mainly women.
These categories of workers who have proven to be the backbone of our survival through the pandemic are often singled out by politicians and a range of policymakers as “heroes.” There has been no dearth of platitudes directed at them. Citizens also convey their appreciation in platitudes — though, on occasion, some vent their frustrations on these racialized frontline workers too.
There are many moving tales of citizens awed in gratitude, some banging pots (in the early days) and others promoting celebratory acts of communal solidarity over the resilience of our’ front-liners.’ And, of course, these are all for good reason. A decent society owes a lot to those who go to work in a time of crisis and to the risk of their personal safety while the majority is asked to work from home.
Two years into the pandemic, and through its various waves, these platitudes have proven to be convenient and fleeting political jingles. While the essential nature of the work is not contested, the racialized and gendered nature of those who do the essential work has meant the government and society can get away without treating them with the fairness or the justice commensurate with the work they do.
Various pandemic pay premiums directed at the frontline workers quickly fizzled out since the summer of 2020, despite the work remaining difficult and often dangerous with the emergent variants of SARS-CoV-2.
In the case of PSWs in long-term care institutions, the working conditions have continued to deteriorate. Even up to the present Omicron wave of the pandemic, staff shortages remain unaddressed. The working environment is increasingly toxic. Polls show staff motivation to be at an all-time low. PSWs and similar care providers are caught in the middle of making impossible decisions that compromise the quality of client care while exposing caregivers – and their families — to health hazards through no fault of their own.
Guaranteed paid sick leave remains a mirage for many. Reporting sick results in loss of pay – a risky proposition for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck – or they can conceal their sick status and put others at risk; hardly a “real choice.”
After two years, there is no reprieve or shift from the status quo for the racialized and gendered segments of our frontline workers save for fleeting platitudes. For them, discrimination and all forms of intimidation and coercion remain the permanent dish on their workplace menu.
In this second Black History Month of the ongoing pandemic, Canadian governments and the Canadian people need to forgo the opportunist rain of platitudes for our frontline workers. There is urgency for permanent policy changes to protect them. Real recognition of heroism includes legislating for sick pay, pandemic pay, workplace safety measures, and a rate of pay that reflects the intensity and necessity of the work done.
Chidi Oguamanam is a professor of law in Canada.
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