This year’s Labor Day comes in the era of essential workers, who have faced unprecedented conditions since March to perform the community’s most crucial services.
As a senior environmental compliance inspector for the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, Colleen Henry can’t work from home. She visits local businesses to inspect and sample wastewater to ensure that the discharge in the sewer pipes protects the system from the pollutants they create.
“My first couple of weeks were rough,” she said of working during the pandemic. “My daughter got sent home from school, so it was balancing being a mom and suddenly a teacher, plus working from home and figuring that thing out at the beginning.”
Henry and some of her colleagues had to quickly adjust to only coming into the office on alternating weeks. Although inspectors normally show up unannounced to test businesses’ wastewater, they now schedule inspections for the safety of both parties.
Henry’s husband travels two nights a week, which makes taking care of their daughter a challenge – especially with school beginning again.
“The weeks that I’m not home, my mom and dad will be helping us out and doing school with my daughter,” she said. “Grandma and Grandpa now have to understand the system.”
Worries about exposure
While many use Labor Day as a way to mark the official end of summer vacation, the holiday also pays tribute to American laborers. The first Labor Day parade was in New York City on Sept. 5, 1885, to honor the contribution of workers amidst the growing labor movements that called for better protection and higher wages for workers at the height of the Industrial Revolution. President Grover Cleveland officially declared the first Monday of September a federal holiday on June 28, 1894.
These days, working during the coronavirus pandemic brings its own set of concerns.
“I try not to think about it (COVID-19) when I’m here,” said Shauna Potts, director of the Dianne Adair Day Care Center at Monte Gardens Elementary School in Concord. Essential workers there provide care for the children of essential workers and parents working from home.
But Potts, who has children aged 16, 15 and 8, can’t help but wonder: Am I exposing my family?
“You can have some anxiety,” she added, “but after coming back in June, I realized how much I’ve missed seeing kids play.”
Potts said some centers like hers had to raise fees for the fall because of the transition from an after-school program to an all-day program that will mimic the school day for children and assist with remote learning.
“It might sound like we’re trying to profit off of families. We truly are not,” she said. “For a lot of these facilities, the amount they’re charging is barely going to cover the payroll, building expenses and supplies.”
Assistant day-care director Scott Jones, also a parent of three, has made the sacrifice of no longer hugging his mom, who is in her 70s. However, he says, coming to work gives purpose to his day.
“I wouldn’t give up my job if the unemployment bonus was double. It means that much to be contributing,” he said.
As the center prepares for the transition to fall, he said, “we’re going to position ourselves the best we can to help essential workers with their child-care needs and give (the kids) a quiet, safe place where they can do their studies.”
From garbage collectors and mail carriers to grocery clerks, essential workers bravely take it day by day in precarious conditions – often without the same level of recognition as their professional counterparts.
While this Labor Day will not see the usual barbecues, sales and sporting events, it should be a true celebration of all those sustaining our local economies and communities.
“If I’m not here doing what I’m doing, then there’s one less cop, one less nurse, one less firefighter, one less person out there that does things that make our communities run, our cities run and our country run,” Jones said.