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George Mason University

Webinar Examines Issues of Social Justice and the Changing Landscape of Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

July 29, 2020   /   by Sarah Mae Dizon

Experts from community-based service industries provided their perspectives on how the pandemic has affected the U.S. workforce.

“We are amidst two pandemics,” began Dr. Emily Ihara—chair of the Department of Social Work—who moderated the COVID-19 CHHS webinar panel on essential work and social justice. “The longstanding pandemic of pervasive and systemic racism and the COVID-19 crisis.” 

COVID-19 has exposed social justice issues that have always existed in our society, explained Ihara. Many working Americans have been made even more vulnerable during the pandemic without living wages, affordable healthcare and sick leave. 

In her introductory remarks, Ihara referenced a recent article in Kaiser Health News and the Guardian, nearly 600 and counting frontline healthcare workers have died of COVID-19 as of early June. A majority of those documented were African American and Asian-American/Pacific Islander. We applaud the hospital workers, nursing home workers, doctors and nurses who have been risking their lives since the virus spread throughout the country in March.

“In addition, we also want to make sure the stories of other essential workers do not get lost,” says Ihara, noting that essential work goes beyond the healthcare industry. Workers at the highest risk in grocery stores, gas stations, construction sites and many other industries often do not have proper protective equipment or earn a living wage. “Much of the work that has been deemed essential is often underpaid and undervalued,” she explained. 

To provide a diverse range of perspectives, the panel included representatives from four distinct community-based service industries serving vulnerable populations: child care, assisted living facilities, behavioral health care providers, and domestic violence shelters. 

Ami Gadhia is the Chief of Policy, Research and Programs for Child Care Aware of America (CAOA). The mission of the organization is to make high quality child care more accessible and affordable for all families. Since the pandemic, CAOA has set up a hotline center to provide support for child care referral agencies that support and regulate child care providers. Additionally, the organization has continued its advocacy for child care systems to Congress. 

Courtney Riggle-van Schagen is the director of Behavior Health at Neighborhood Health. The health center serves more than 30,000 patients across Northern Virginia. Neighborhood Health provides health care to underserved communities in the region with the goal of advancing health equity. Since the pandemic, their main focus has been on providing critical care to vulnerable populations. This includes keeping communities informed, providing COVID-19 testing, delivering food items to homes and providing other resources to properly quarantine. 

Kay Halverson is the Executive Director of Mary Marshall Assisted Living Residence. It is a residence for 52 aging, low-income seniors in Arlington County with a diagnosis of a serious mental illness or intellectual disability. Halverson explains that they’ve experienced epidemics before, so shifting operations for the pandemic was familiar, but still presented unique challenges such as the duration that these changes have been in place. One unexpected change their workforce experienced was the loss of their contracted cleaning crew; since then, cleaning duties have fallen to the staff.

Debra Evans is the Division Chief of the Sexual Assault Center and Domestic Violence Program for the City of Alexandria, Virginia. They provide a variety of services such as a 24-hour hotline, short-term therapy, legal accompaniment and a 24-hour safe house. Evans noted that these services are critical at this time for survivors. The program has shifted many of these services to a telehealth platform, but some clients face barriers that make technology difficult to access. 

The workforce for these community-based services has been affected in many ways. All of the panelists expressed concern over the wellbeing of staff in their various organizations. Many of these staff carry the responsibility of supporting their entire households with the rise in unemployment. Both Riggle-van Schagen and Halverson noted that their staff have been affected with the limitations that have been placed on public transportation. Workers from all of these fields face significant anxiety about contracting the virus. Child care workers, who are 40% women of color, are particularly vulnerable as many lack proper health benefits and are severely underpaid.  

“We’re concerned with staff burnout,” says Riggle-van Schagen; employees at Neighborhood Health are continually exposed to critical, high-stress situations while caring for patients. They have also had very little time to process the current circumstances of the pandemic and have fears of a potential second wave in the fall. Similarly, staff at Mary Marshall Assisted Living Residence have been working even harder by taking on new responsibilities to keep their facility sanitary. Evans echoed these concerns for staff at the Sexual Assault Center of Alexandria. Maintaining their 24-hour hotlines and the 24-hour safe house has been difficult. 

Panelists agreed that protecting essential workers in these industries and others requires advocacy in congress and increased funding to support the workers themselves and the communities they serve. Moving forward, the panelists hope to support the mental wellbeing of their staff to prevent burnout during this critical time. As the pandemic continues, they will need to find sustainable ways to support the economic, mental and physical wellbeing of their essential workers.

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