Workers at stores like Walmart have been deemed "essential" during the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers at stores like Walmart have been deemed "essential" during the coronavirus pandemic.

A few weeks ago, “non-essential businesses” across the region shuttered as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. For many people, working from home has become the new daily routine. But some work simply can’t be done at home, leaving tens of thousands of people unemployed. Other workers have been deemed “essential” and continue to do their work like they always have — with new challenges and fears.

Who are the “essential” workers beyond the frontline healthcare professionals? In our region, that answer depends on the jurisdiction where you live. But hospitals, grocery stores, liquor stores, farmers markets, banks, auto repair shops, take-out restaurants, construction work and a few other services remain open in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

How are these workers keeping safe while continuing to work? And how does their safety affect us all?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Max Stier President and CEO, Partnership for Public Service; @RPublicService
  • Jonathan Williams Communications Director, United Food and Commercial Workers (Local 400) @UFCW400
  • Dennis Desmond Dennis Desmond, Business Manager, LiUNA! Local 11; @LIUNA


  • 12:00:04

    KOJO NNAMDIYou tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be speaking with Justin Lopez-Cardoze, D.C.'s 2020 Teacher of the Year in the second installment of Kojo for Kids, our segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners, who we look forward to hearing from soon.

  • 12:00:21

    KOJO NNAMDIBut first a few weeks ago non-essential businesses across the region shuttered as the Coronavirus pandemic took hold. Some workers have been deemed essential and continue to do their work like they always have with new challenges and fears, of course. Who are these essential workers beyond frontline health care professionals? And how are these workers keeping safe while continuing to work? Joining me now is Jonathan Williams, Communications Director with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 400. Jonathan Williams, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:54

    JONATHAN WILLIAMSThanks for having me.

  • 12:00:55

    NNAMDIYour union represents 20,000 grocery workers in the area who have become vital in this pandemic. They're putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones on the line every day by going to work. So how are they doing?

  • 12:01:08

    WILLIAMSWell, as you can imagine folks are anxious very much so at work right now. But also I think we can all agree that grocery workers and other front line workers have really stepped up to the plate on this challenge. And I know every grocery store I go to is still open and my family can still depend on those services. So I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to everyone working on the frontlines right now.

  • 12:01:33

    NNAMDIAre they getting the supplies they need to stay safe and to keep the rest of us safe?

  • 12:01:39

    WILLIAMSAnd see that's one of our top concerns as a union right now. We all are familiar with this nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment including masks and gloves and other things that are necessary to keep workers safe. Our union has two priorities right now. Number one is getting our members designated as first responders, because let's face it, they are. And secondly by having this first responder designation we can implement widespread testing of grocery store workers so they can make an informed choice before coming to work and know if they are potentially infectious and should be staying home and quarantining.

  • 12:02:18

    WILLIAMSAnd our second priority is implementing strict limits on the number of customers in grocery stores. This is not a normal time right now. We can't expect to have normal shopping experiences. And we need strict limits on the number of customers permitted in a store at a given time. And right now some companies have made moves in that direction. But unfortunately the limits that companies have set for themselves are so high that in some cases they allow hundreds of customers in a store at a time. And it makes it impossible to enforce social distancing protocols. So we need to get widespread testing for every grocery worker on the frontlines immediately and strict limits on the number of customers in grocery stores.

  • 12:03:00

    NNAMDIHere's Phillip in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Phillip, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:03:05

    PHILLIPHow are you doing, sir?

  • 12:03:07

    NNAMDII'm doing well.

  • 12:03:08

    PHILLIPGood. I wanted to stress the importance of being a first responder, because we have customers coming in daily. They're bringing their whole families in. They're reaching over us while we're trying to stock the shelves. Some will say, "Excuse me," while they pick up the item. But most of the time they're right beside each other. They're reaching over us and it puts ourselves in danger. We really need this status, because it's really hard out here trying to keep, you know, the stores stocked.

  • 12:03:44


  • 12:03:45

    PHILLIPAnd people are just over us all day long.

  • 12:03:47

    NNAMDIPhillip, thank you so much for your call underscoring the point already made by Jonathan Williams that grocery store workers and certainly their union need to see them being considered as first responders. Jonathan, are the grocery store workers in your union receiving some sort of hazard pay or additional benefits?

  • 12:04:05

    WILLIAMSYes, I mean, as unionized workers we were able to negotiate with several companies for hazard pay. In many cases, that is an hourly premium. So for every hour worked, you're making more money than you would under normal circumstances, but in addition we've managed to get a number of other safety protocols and other things through our employers. But our priority right now is the safety of our members. And when our members are safe our customers are safe. We can't let the grocery store become a dangerous place to shop. And so we have a whole suite of safety improvements that we'd like to see. But first and foremost, we need widespread testing available to every grocery worker on the frontlines.

  • 12:04:49

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Dennis Desmond, Business Manager at the Laborers International Union of North America, LiUNA! Local 11. Dennis Desmond, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:59

    DENNIS DESMONDThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:05:01

    NNAMDII'd like to play a voicemail left by a construction worker who called WAMU's newsroom about working conditions. He left the message on April 1 and did not want to be identified. And we do not know who he works for, but here's what he had to say.

  • 12:05:15

    ANONYMOUSMy life hasn't changed at all. Job sites haven't changed at all. Still going to work. No PPE. Somehow construction workers have been deemed essential enough for me to have to build a town home, but not essential enough to provide me with any kind of safety gear or hand wash station. In fact, the job sites haven't been cleaned. There's nowhere to wash your hands. Social distancing is impossible. And it doesn't seem like anybody cares, anybody thinks about us, because we don't have to actually directly be seen by public. So it'd be really nice to get a little bit of news coverage someone to talking and at least maybe try to help get us hazard pay or some safety equipment to keep all of the people on the job site safe, because as of right now there's nothing.

  • 12:06:04

    NNAMDIDennis Desmond, what's your reaction to that caller's story? Is that something that construction workers in your union are also experiencing?

  • 12:06:12

    DESMONDNo. Well, we are a commercial constructions workers. About 3,000 as of this morning and we are mostly infrastructure workers working outside not building residential construction, but mostly working outside, places like roads and bridges and utilities. So that's a terrible situation, by the way, what that caller described. We have about 200 contractors providing extra personal protective equipment to our workers such as hand sanitizer, gloves, masks where we can get them, and we the union are supplementing them. But the caller's situation sounds not very good. And it's a shame that he doesn't have more of a voice at work or they can't bring some kind of pressure on his contractor. But that situation he described is not typical of your unionized commercial construction company.

  • 12:07:15

    NNAMDIIs what you and the other members of your union doing essential? Should your 3,000 members continue to work during the pandemic?

  • 12:07:22

    DESMONDI think so, Kojo, because take a look at what we're doing. We're working with utilities for example. If you have a backed up sewer, you can't just leave that alone. If you have an electricity line that's been cut, you can't deny people and hospitals and grocery stores their electricity. If you have a leaking gas pipe that could become a life threatening situation. So our workers are doing essential work.

  • 12:07:51

    NNAMDIHere is Robert in Washington D.C. Robert identifies as a commercial construction worker or being involved in commercial construction. Robert, your turn.

  • 12:08:01

    ROBERTThanks, Kojo. Yeah. I work on many job sites across the city. And I do not think what we are doing should be deemed essential. We are not working on an infrastructure or like he was saying electrical or gas or something like that. We're working on buildings where people go to work, office buildings. So we have to be on these job sites where there's no way you can social distance. But you're forced to be on the job site in close proximity to other people working on jobs that are for law offices, associations, stuff that is not essential. And I'm very upset that the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia hasn't made a distinction between what is an essential construction project and a non-essential.

  • 12:08:48

    NNAMDIHow would you respond to that, Dennis Desmond?

  • 12:08:50

    DESMONDWell, you know, Robert has a point. There may be some kinds of projects that we could identify that we could say could wait. Maybe the home owner who wants to build an addition on their house maybe now is not the best time. But consider that even on building construction you can't start a building and simply drop it off and simply let it go, because that building left out to the elements could become a hazard, could become a public hazard. And in the long run it would cost a lot of money to go back and fix it and probably drive up the cost of construction to all workers.

  • 12:09:27

    DESMONDAnd construction workers generally speaking as your listeners may not realize this, but if they don't work, generally speaking they don't get paid. So this isn't a sector of the economy where people have deep pockets where they can afford to sit at home and get--and will expect to be paid and have benefits. It doesn't work like that. So I think most construction is properly deemed essential.

  • 12:09:51

    DESMONDBut Robert's got a point. There might be some that isn't.

  • 12:09:53

    NNAMDIUp next is Max Stier, the Founding President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Max Stier, good to talk to you, unusual not to see your face while I'm talking to you.

  • 12:10:04

    MAX STIERYou know, unusual, but I hope you're safe and well. And thank you for including me in this conversation.

  • 12:10:09

    NNAMDISame to you. You and your organization, Partnership for Public Service train thousands of federal employees with the goal of making the government more effective. How difficult has accomplishing that goal been in the past couple of months?

  • 12:10:22

    STIERIt has been quite difficult, but we're all dealing with extraordinary situation here. And certainly for us it's been easier than for many. And you've got two great guests, who are describing some of the broader challenges that exist here. You know, we've moved entirely virtually. We do train thousands of folks and we've been able to move all of our programming to a virtual setting.

  • 12:10:49

    STIERThe challenge really is for the federal employees themselves, who have had a really difficult road, because as you've heard from your other guests here, unfortunately right now we see a challenge for people to balance their personal safety and their efforts to help the public more broadly. And finding a way to make sure that that tension is one where we can support both the health and safety of critical people and make sure that important things are done is really hard one, and for federal employees particularly. As you know, there are 300,000 in this area. You know, many of them frontline whether you're a TSA security officer you have to be on the job.

  • 12:11:32

    STIERFor most federal employees--all federal employees continue to work right now. But many of them are not able to stay at home. And that's the real difference on the essential versus non-essential. Federal employees are working. But some have to come into the office or go to a location like an airport in which they have to, you know, balance this issue of their personal safety and their public service. And I think the points that have been raised already, it's critical that we make sure that they have the safety equipment that they need and that everything that can be done to put them in a better position is actually done.

  • 12:12:06

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. But when we come back we'll be continuing this conversation on essential workers and the pandemic. So if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call 800-433-8850 is the number. Should construction work continue under stay-at-home orders? Should grocery store workers receive hazard pay and sick leave if they were to get the virus? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:46

    NNAMDIWe're talking about essential workers in this pandemic. Who is essential? Who isn't? What kind of protection is being made available for those workers? Max Stier, the federal government is not in a shutdown. Are most federal employees still working in the same capacity as they once were?

  • 12:13:01

    STIERSo, you're exactly right. It's not a shutdown. And so the answer is yes. Federal employees are working. They are oftentimes working remotely, just a shout out to great leadership from Jay Clayton at the SCC. He was the first, I believe, in Washington to say, everyone has to be working from some place other than the office, home or someplace where they can, you know, keep safe, but that's challenging for some.

  • 12:13:29

    STIERSo if you're working, for example, in a classified environment, you really can't bring your work home or at least they haven't figured out all the challenges associated with it. Or if you're front line, you know, helping the public that becomes very difficult as well. So the quick answer is yes. Federal employees are working hard. Some are working remotely and others are at-risk working in their usual work environment.

  • 12:13:53

    NNAMDIHere is Christina in Washington D.C. Christina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:57

    CHRISTINAHi. I just wanted to respond to earlier the comments about people being on the grocery store workers. I haven't been to the -- I feel for him and what he's describing. I haven't been to the grocery store since last Tuesday. When I went there was a group of like four or five workers in a large group, you know, talking about work. But it was very difficult to navigate around them. I was trying to give them distance. But they -- I don't know, didn't seem to see I was there. And there wasn't really a clear path for me to move. So I hope that workers also are cognizant of allowing space for people. And maybe the store needed to provide a different space for them to meet, but it was difficult.

  • 12:14:48

    NNAMDIJonathan Williams, care to comment on that?

  • 12:14:50

    WILLIAMSI mean, this is one of the reasons that we are pushing for strict customer limits in our stores to avoid overcrowding in stores. And yes in many cases in order for our members to do their jobs in grocery stores they're unable to follow social distancing protocols. And that's why our other priority is getting testing for every grocery worker. We need to know particularly, because with this illness as we all, you can by asymptomatic. You may not even feel sick and you can be contagious with this disease. And so we need widespread testing of every grocery worker immediately. So we can know that when you go shopping that it's safe to be around people working in the store. And it's safe to shop.

  • 12:15:31

    NNAMDIHere's Michael in Silver Spring, Maryland. Michael, your turn.

  • 12:15:36

    MICHAELYeah. Thank you, Kojo. I'm a bus driver. I live in Maryland and we are presently driving and picking up people at reduced service. Passengers have been boarding from the back and it's been free, but that's not enough protection for us. We have no gloves, no face masks, no hand sanitizer or anything and we are considered essential employees. We have to report rain, snow, whatever every day. So I think that's not good for us.

  • 12:16:10

    NNAMDIWhat have you been told about PPEs, personal protection equipment? Have you been given a reason why you're not getting that equipment?

  • 12:16:19

    MICHAELWell, I have not actually spoken to anyone about it. I've asked for gloves at the desk. I've asked for hand sanitizer. They don't have it. So that's an answer.

  • 12:16:31

    NNAMDIOoh, you're driving a bus. Are you a member of a union?

  • 12:16:34

    MICHAELYeah. We have a union.

  • 12:16:36


  • 12:16:38

    MICHAELYou know, which I'm not too happy about. So I don't even know the number for the union.

  • 12:16:43

    NNAMDIWell, it sounds to me as if you need to be talking to somebody, because we're really glad you called in here. But somebody within the organization you work needs to be offering an explanation, because, obviously, if you're a bus driver you are essential. So I guess my advice to you is to stay safe and, please, talk to somebody and find out what the situation is and if it can be improved. And, Michael, you're doing an essential job. So thank you for doing it and good luck to you.

  • 12:17:10

    NNAMDIMax Stier, are there certain agencies that have thrived? Government agencies that have thrived during this pandemic and perhaps others that have lagged behind in terms of the kind of work they're doing?

  • 12:17:22

    STIERI think it's a challenge for everybody and it's hard to think of any agency that I would describe as thriving specifically. There are agencies that have a long history of doing telework. So one of my favorite examples of this is the Patent and Trademark Office. I think something close to 90 percent of their employees under ordinary course telework, and so they're able to move forward with, you know, many fewer challenges given the changes that take place. And another star would be NASA. There are absolutely agencies that have had a much harder road to hoe here specially the agencies that are being called on in a dramatic way to help with the response here.

  • 12:18:03

    STIERSo think about the IRS where they have had very very little investment in their technology and they are, you know, 80,000 people that all of a sudden have to operate differently and are being called on to send checks to everybody to change the tax season. I mean, it's an organization under a lot of stress that is really important in terms of providing people with the support they need.

  • 12:18:27

    STIERThe SBA is another agency, again, Small Business Administration when you think about it -- and I may have these numbers a little wrong, but they're not really wrong. And that is they're being asked not to deal with a crisis in a single location. It's a crisis that's nationwide. And so they're having to put out help and loans to small businesses or non-profits like ourselves that are something like 50 times more resources than they've ever had to do before. And so, again, it's just a massive task without any notice or any ability to really at the front end pull in the kinds of assistance that they would need to do that well.

  • 12:19:04

    STIERSo those are the places that I think are seeing the biggest challenges, but it's, you know, pulling on every federal employee in very difficult ways. And, you know, so far, again, I think the government is responding well. This is a leadership challenge. And hopefully a wakeup call for all of us that we need to be investing in our government's ability more than we've done and differently than we've done in the past in order to avoid future problems like these.

  • 12:19:29

    NNAMDIAlice from Montgomery County couldn't stay on the line, but says, "I think it's outrageous and absurd that Governor Larry Hogan has listed landscape workers as essential. It's destructive. It destroys habitat, puts CO2 into the environment." And now here is Bona in Arlington, Virginia. Bona, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:49

    BONAHello, Kojo. My name is Bona. I work for Uber. I used to work for -- I mean, with people, but after the pandemic still doing a couple of trips. I found out that it's a very risky thing. So I stopped doing that and I switched to food delivery, Uber Eats. Even then I take my own initiative and follow CDC on how to protect myself. So instead of waiting for gloves and masks I figured out how to make them myself, you know, from home, and then I'm using that.

  • 12:20:27


  • 12:20:29

    BONASo my recommendation for other essential workers is don't wait on any other person to give you that. You are in risk of catching the COVID-19. Do something about it. I mean, make your own mask. Use it. You can get from 7-11 you can buy a bunch of gloves to use it. So if you follow CDC and be creative you can protect yourselves. Don't expect somebody else to come and give it to you. That's my response. I mean, it's good if they get it, but if not be creative and make your own gloves and masks. Thank you.

  • 12:21:04

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. And finally there's Troy in the D.C. area. Troy, we only have about a minute left. But go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:12

    TROYSo one thing I wanted to talk about and I didn't want to (unintelligible) I take this very serious, extremely seriously. But I did want to talk about the safety measures in the D.C. area, D.C. Virginia area that the contractors aren't taking, primarily the general contractors who are in charge of the larger construction sites. They have made it to where -- the measures were taken earlier as safe as you can possibly make them. There is group chats, text messages and everybody is extremely alert of checking the health of everybody, who walks in and out of the building. So many guidelines have been set. No more than four people to an elevator. You have to stay in each four corner of it. They have sanitation everywhere whether ...

  • 12:22:06

    NNAMDIAnd these are -- I'm asking because we only got 30 second left. These are construction projects that you're working on right now?

  • 12:22:11

    TROYYes, sir. I'm running about six or seven of them.

  • 12:22:13

    NNAMDIOkay. We're glad to hear that, but unfortunately we're just about out of time right now. Max Stier, Jonathan Williams, Dennis Desmond, thank you all for joining us. And good luck to you. Stay safe out there. Going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be talking with Justin Lopez-Cardoze, D.C.'s 2020 Teacher of the Year in the second installment of Kojo for Kids, only kids can call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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