To Fight Coronavirus, Organize Your Coworkers

Faced with impossible choices between going to work and facing potential exposure to coronavirus or staying home and losing needed income, workers at a Brooklyn cafe got organized. To ensure a just response to coronavirus, millions more working people will need to get similarly organized in our workplaces, in our communities, and in politics.

Fog envelops the Manhattan skyline as the Brooklyn Bridge sits nearly empty of pedestrian traffic in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak on March 20, 2020 in New York City. Victor J. Blue / Getty

I’m a barista at Bakeri, a small-batch European-style bakery and cafe in Brooklyn. Or, I was until Thursday, when I went home sick with a sore throat and slight cough. I’m young and feel healthy, but can’t leave my apartment knowing that I could be carrying a disease that’s killed nearly 9,000 people and infected countless more around the world, and I certainly can’t go to work, where I’m in contact with hundreds of people every day. I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to work, or if I’ll even have a job to go back to.

My future is up in the air, and I’m not alone. Several dozen of my coworkers are in the same boat, as are millions of others around the United States. As the number of people infected with COVID-19 keeps growing, closing all nonessential businesses like the one where I work is crucial. But in a country without a social safety net, social distancing will not only save lives, but threaten the livelihoods of low-wage workers like me.

As COVID-19 spreads and economic collapse seems imminent, one in five Americans have already been laid off or lost hours. It might feel like there’s nothing to do but throw up our hands and hope that people in power find a way to save us. But in the last few days, workers across the country — including the chefs, bakers, baristas, counter-people, dishwashers, and delivery drivers that I work with every day — have taken matters into our own hands and fought for our health and financial security. To ensure a just response to COVID-19 for all working-class people, millions more working people need to get organized in our workplaces, in our communities, and in politics.

Bakeri’s two locations are popular destinations for the artsy and affluent Brooklyn brunch set, and last weekend not much had changed, despite increasing calls for social distancing amidst the urgent and growing COVID-19 outbreak in New York City. As recently as Monday, after Mayor Bill de Blasio demanded all restaurants switch to takeout only, people were still lined up outside the door to buy artisanal sourdough from a gloved skeleton crew.

As customers chose to venture out in pursuit of baked goods, employees facing material insecurity and fearing COVID-19 were forced to choose between potentially transmitting or contracting the infection at work or staying home and losing out on vital income. For our coworkers who are ineligible for state benefits, that choice was effectively made for them.

By Sunday night, at least four of us were out sick with symptoms associated with COVID-19, and many more without symptoms called in sick as well, fearing for their own safety and that of high-risk roommates and family members — not to mention the general public. It was clear that we had to take action.

Over the course of one hectic evening, we contacted as many coworkers as possible, got everyone into a WhatsApp chat, and drafted and signed a petition asking that the cafe close its doors and create a contingency plan to protect all workers in the event of a closure. Before we could send it, however, we received notice that five of us had been laid off, joining thousands of others across the country, and that we would remain open with a new reduced schedule.

We doubled down and sent a petition again making the case for closure, and asking for clarity about our rights, measures that were being taken to protect us, and what would become of people who were laid off. On Monday morning, as a handful of us kept things running and delivered orders to customers waiting curbside, we were all notified that management had decided to close early, and to shut both locations temporarily starting on Tuesday.

This was a huge step towards keeping people safe, but there was still a lot of work left to do. In their email, management said that they planned to attempt to reopen as soon as possible and gave everyone the choice between coming in and getting paid, or staying home and being laid off. We quickly drafted a response asking what steps would be taken to protect anyone continuing to work and requesting the immediate payment of all accrued PTO to any worker who requests it, without a doctor’s note. Finally, we suggested ways management could help provide for workers ineligible for government benefits, such as ensuring that sales of gift cards and other nonperishables be used for payroll and PTO, and donating unusable perishables to employees in need.

Throughout this process, we’ve been inspired by similar actions taken by other service and small-business workers. Other Brooklyn businesses were organizing fundraisers for undocumented employees, and encouraging their customers to buy gift cards to fund employee payroll. Recently unionized McNally Jackson employees created a donation fund for employees laid off without notice because of coronavirus, and Tartine Union in California launched a hardship fund after pushing production centers and stores to limit operations.

We’ve also come to realize that though COVID-19 exacerbated our problems, it didn’t cause them. Service employees, who are at an increased risk of infection because of our constant interaction with the public, often lack medical insurance and other benefits, and are frequently forced to rely on tips. These problems are much worse for immigrant workers who are ineligible for government benefits, have a much harder time accessing medical care, and are much more likely to be employed in low-wage industries. These are all things we’ve had to grapple with over the course of our organizing, but in doing so, we’ve built a greater level of solidarity — one that will hopefully last long after our doors reopen.

When presented with the final choice to come in or be laid off, everyone replied with their personal decision but included shared language asking for everyone in quarantine to get PTO and restating our ideas to protect vulnerable workers who kept going in to work. Management got back to us on Wednesday, saying that, unfortunately, they would be unable to pay out PTO to people who were laid off if they were to keep paying people coming in, and that protecting people ineligible for benefits was their main priority.

By this point, a lot of us who qualified for unemployment were well past caring about our own PTO and agreed that helping our most vulnerable coworkers is the priority. We’d already created a fund for workers ineligible for benefits, and when it came down to it, we made one last request: to pay out our accrued PTO to a fund to support workers ineligible for unemployment.

After much back and forth, a final petition, and the creation of our public Twitter and Instagram, management agreed to donate the PTO, to promote our solidarity fund, and to work with us to develop a plan going forward.

While obviously nothing about the situation is ideal, we are grateful to management for taking these steps. We’re also proud of the way we came together and know that if we hadn’t, there’s no guarantee we’d have ended up with such a good outcome.

Unfortunately, the protections for all workers are limited due to developments far beyond management’s control, and it’s going to take a lot more to ensure that Bakeri staff and service workers everywhere are fully protected for as long as this crisis continues. So far, everyone has tried to make the best of a bad situation, but the best we can do right now isn’t good enough. Those of us who have been laid off are now struggling to deal with an overwhelmed unemployment system and benefits that won’t be enough to survive, and it’s unclear what will happen to us and our coworkers who are still employed in the days, weeks, and months to come as the pandemic worsens.

Though my coworkers and I won some concessions, workers everywhere are still lacking the broader social safety net that we’ll need as this crisis continues. We need rent suspension, expanded unemployment benefits and PTO policies, emergency medical coverage, and as much financial relief as possible to people losing income as a result of COVID-19, especially for immigrants and other especially vulnerable populations.

We also need serious government intervention to help small businesses stay afloat and provide for their employees. The pandemic didn’t create these problems, but it has created a vital opening for workers to organize themselves, at every workplace and in the political realm, to demand not only a just response, but lasting protections for working people and a better standard of living for all.

I don’t know what will happen next, but if the last few days have proven anything, I know we’ll have each other’s backs. Right now, we’re starting a relief fund to provide for our most vulnerable coworkers, compiling resources for our fellow workers about organizing, mutual aid, and navigating the legal system, and sharing our experience on Twitter and Instagram in order to help other workers in the same situation to show that organizing works, and it’s not only possible, but necessary. The world is rapidly changing around us, but if workers across the country start organizing and building networks of solidarity, we can make sure it changes for the better.