For decades, many “low-skilled” workers—including grocery and drugstore clerks, delivery drivers, and in-home care providers—saw their wages suppressed, positions cut to part-time or contracted work, and paid sick leave and health care benefits chipped away. Now, tens of millions of these workers have suddenly been recognized as “essential” and moved to the front lines of a global pandemic.
New York City is currently the epicenter of the virus in the United States, as there have been 11,244 verified cases and 519 deaths in Manhattan. Recent data released by the city reveals that Black, Latinx, and low-income communities are being hit the hardest, as individual death rates for Black and Latinx people double that of white patients. Black and Latinx individuals constitute 68 percent of the population of District 9, which encompasses Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville, Morningside Heights, and West Harlem. The district also has the highest poverty rates in all of Manhattan, with 20 percent of residents falling below the poverty line.
Despite the exponential growth in recorded coronavirus cases, up to 25 percent of carriers show no symptoms of infection, leading health experts to deem social distancing and self-isolation as necessary measures for personal safety. But while wealthier populations are able to stay home and work remotely, social distancing has remained nearly impossible for the essential workers who keep businesses open across Morningside Heights to serve the residential clientele. Not only do these employees’ roles require constant exposure to customers, but high rent prices and low wages also mean that they must commute to work, oftentimes by public transit.
The discrepancy between safety measures that wealthier populations can afford to take versus the limited options available to the working class has been laid bare by location data collected from cell phones. This divide is especially apparent in Morningside Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods, which showcase the largest income disparity in New York City. A 2013 Spectator analysis found that the top fifth of the Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights populations makes an income more than 30 times that of the lowest fifth. Within the 2010 census tract that spans 114th to 122nd streets and Broadway to Riverside Drive, the median income is $114,722. But in the tract that spans 123rd to 126th streets and Amsterdam to Manhattan avenues, the median income is $19,816.
For low-wage essential employees, who are typically paid a low or living wage, an increase of Morningside Heights’ cost of rent by almost 37 percent since 1990 makes living near Columbia’s campus inaccessible—requiring many to commute to the area from various locations in Harlem. Those who take public transit face another high-risk opportunity for exposure, as the MTA has reported 41 deaths and over 6000 transit workers currently sick or in quarantine.
Residents in low-income districts like CB9 already face increased danger of contracting COVID-19 due to their limited access to health care. Miriam Aristy-Farer, the chair of the health committee on Community Board 9, said that the nature of their jobs has made many of these vulnerable communities more susceptible.
“We have a lot of underlying health issues, so we’re vulnerable on that end, and then the types of jobs that many of us in this community tend to hold are service jobs and minimum wage jobs, and workers need to take the subway, and they didn't have the luxury of remote telecommuting. We have to kind of keep going until the city shuts down,” Aristy-Farer said.
John Encarnación, an employee at the UPS Store on 115th Street and Broadway, said that he is still concerned about contracting the coronavirus despite the gloves and masks his management provides him because he comes into contact with 50 to 60 people each day. Encarnación added he has recently stopped riding the subway and has begun taking a cab to work to help reduce the chance of exposure to the virus, a costly change in routine compared to public transit.
“I feel safe at work. Going to work is a different story,” he said.
Commuting fears aside, nationwide mask shortages mean that the most protective masks are reserved for health care workers by orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While businesses like The UPS Store reported that employees were provided protective gear by higher-up management, others including Martin Brothers Wine and Spirits and Koronet Pizza have had limited or no supply of gloves and surgical masks for employees. Further, the FDA recommends that equipment is regularly discarded and renewed—a luxury that not even hospital workers have been able to afford.
Felix Sanchez, the general manager of Martin Brothers Wine and Spirits on 107th and Broadway, said business has not slowed much since Columbia’s move to online classes because of a strong residential clientele. However, consistent customers in the store make access to personal protective equipment even more imperative.
“The only access we have is that of everyone else. There’s no special distributor or source that we have,” Sanchez said.
Access for “everyone else” has proven to be limited. According to an employee who spoke under the condition of anonymity to protect their job security, workers at Town Drug Pharmacy on 113th Street and Amsterdam have relied on donations for safety equipment and have not been able to switch out supplies after each use as per FDA regulation.
“Right now, we’ve been using the same two masks. There’s a shortage, obviously, so we’ve been trying to order it and they haven’t given us an availability date, we just try every day,” they said. “As far as gloves are concerned, someone came in and donated a few boxes, so we have a few boxes but we have to keep changing them every so often, so they go pretty fast.”
Antonia Sanchez, an employee at Koronet Pizza, which is still open for takeout orders, said management has had a difficult time acquiring surgical masks even though other employees in the area seem to have access.
“Over at Westside Market, everyone is wearing gloves and masks, but we are not able to find any masks. They are hard to find, and we feel exposed,” she said. Westside Market did not respond to requests to comment.
Milear Lanier, a pharmacy manager at Duane Reade on 111th and Broadway, said employees are wearing gloves but no masks due to mask shortages. Lanier also said that employees have not heard of receiving hazard pay, or additional pay raises for employees working with the risk of heightened exposure to the coronavirus.
Denis Nash, the executive director of the City University of New York’s Institute for Implementation Science in Population Health, said the CDC’s recommendation for people to wear masks or homemade cloth coverings in public is likely less for self-protection and more to prevent possibly asymptomatic people from unknowingly spreading the virus to others.
But this could be different for essential workers who are especially vulnerable to exposure due to frequent contact with others who ignore social distancing guidelines, he said. Ideally, essential workers would benefit from wearing respirators with a tighter seal and higher air particle-blocking capability, like the N95 masks that healthcare workers are scrambling to get a hold of amid a national shortage.
“We need to have a public health response that takes into account that not everyone can physically distance,” he said. “We need to take care of our healthcare workers, we need to take care of our grocery store employees, the delivery people, the first responders.”