When it comes to the worldwide spread of the coronavirus, people like Leo Laffitte are on the front lines.
Laffitte isn’t a health care provider. He works in facilities at Hartford Public Library and, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Laffitte is one of those workers whose jobs require he be physically present and in close contact with a variety of people, with no opportunity to work remotely, as so many employers have advised their workers to do. (Update: On Friday, the library announced it will close through March 31.)
There is another class of employees whose members are even more vulnerable. While health authorities tell people to stay home if they feel sick in the face of COVID-19, that advice is complicated for low-wage earners, of whom two-thirds are women, or for another overwhelmingly female group of workers such as certified nurse assistants and teaching assistants.
A pending epidemic illuminates the holes in our health care system. Amid complaints that the White House was ill-prepared and continues to react inappropriately to a virus that in three short months has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands worldwide, one reality predates Pres. Donald Trump: When it comes to health care, we are only as strong as our most vulnerable citizen.
Twenty-three million American employees are considered low-wage earners with little flexibility in their work schedules. When more vulnerable workers have the sniffles or a fever, and staying home means they don’t get paid, and they – like most Americans – don’t have vast savings to fall back on – those workers will drag themselves into work. That creates a fertile breeding ground for COVID-19, which is thought to spread quickest person-to-person.
While state Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chair of the legislative labor and public employees committee and former union activist, recently bemoaned the state’s lack of a family leave policy, she said Washington state – which appears to be the epicenter of the outbreak —might offer some guidance. Meanwhile, the state, which requires companies of a certain size to offer paid sick days, has created a comprehensive web page to keep state residents abreast of latest coronavirus news.
Nationally, Connecticut’s Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd, has introduced a bill that would require companies to grant paid sick leave during public health emergencies such as this virus. This comes after Republicans stormed out of a February hearing when DeLauro spoke critically of the Trump administration’s lack of transparency regarding funding and information about the virus.
Lafitte, district vice president of AFSCME Local 1716, has been working in facilities at Hartford Public Library for 18 years, where he does cleaning and some carpentry. As he says, “I know my way around mops, buckets, sponges and sprays.”
Lafitte says that the library’s CEO, Bridget Quinn-Carey, has been ahead of elected officials in preparing for the virus. Lafitte said his union, too, has been proactive in educating its members, to the point that he has been able to calm the fears of non-union members who’ve worried about infection. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are spending more time washing their hands, and cleaning the library’s bathrooms, computers, and particularly, the computer keyboards. This is especially important in a public space, said Lafitte.
Lafitte said he appreciates that the downtown branch has long been a sanctuary for people who are homeless, and that it will remain that way, even while the library announced recently that it would suspend upcoming programs such as their baby grand piano series and a mental health pre-screening day. The library’s website includes a page of coronavirus information.
“The library is a public institution,” said Lafitte. “It is for everyone.”
Susan Campbell teaches at the University of New Haven. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.