Today’s Essential Workers Were Yesterday’s Invisible Workers.
Cheering is pleasant, but did it have to come to this COVID crisis for workers, who were consistently present through thick and thin, through snow, and shine to feel appreciated?
“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” — Confucius, Chinese teacher, and philosopher
The New York Times article titled, “3 Hospital Workers Gave Out Masks. Weeks Later, They All Were Dead” by Nicole Hong spotlights “the often-invisible army of employees who keep New York hospitals running.” The tragic story, regarding the lives of support workers who toil behind the scene to keep Elmhurst hospital in Queens, New York running smoothly, is an excellent example of scenarios unfolding across the country as this pandemic rages onward. In the article, Hong pulls back the curtain to reveal the valiant efforts of these before-the-crisis invisible warriors. Simply put, the act of doing their jobs became a death-trap that eventually took their lives. Today, across America, the ‘essential worker’ is applauded for their jobs; nevertheless, before this moment, many of us never disparaged their existence. They were invisible to many of us.
In the early 1990s, I migrated from my island home to Canada to do housekeeping and babysitting in exchange for room, board, and college education. I assumed this was the best I could do as a high school dropout. Happy to escape from a life steeped in trauma from childhood domestic violence, I soon learned the opportunity was an illusion.
My journey to this moment was hidden. Over five decades ago, born into a family of invisible workers, my choices were limited. My mother, and the women in our family before her, were invisible workers. Every one of them experienced hardship and difficulty at the hands of their employers. When I was younger, I noticed my mom’s hands were not as smooth and clear as my younger hands. Later, when I discovered her passage as a cleaner, I understood why.
This experience was among the reasons I decided that obtaining a college education was essential and necessary at an early age. I felt an education could offer control over my life. Unfortunately, I did not realize my life as a poor, Black woman born in the West Indies, made it harder for such mile-high dreams to come through.
Nevertheless, when the chance to travel abroad to work as a housekeeper manifested, I saw it as my ticket out. Sadly, I confronted the ugly side of humanity — I faced the fact that I was not an essential worker but an invisible one. Indeed, my plight clarified when I was forced to clean floors on my knees with a toothbrush, cook, do laundry, take care of three kids, and to remain available for my employers most days while living in their basement. When I spoke up about the deplorable conditions, I lived under, and the treatment I received, they held my passport and informed me I could not leave until I repaid my plane ticket. Luckily, my Godmother learned about my predicament and paid off my debt, allowing me to go. Soon after, I found a new housekeeping job but ran away because the kids spat on me, creating an even tougher situation. They did not see me as worthy enough to treat with respect. I was not essential to them; I was invisible.
Today, I am a college graduate, but my past life experiences create inner conflict when I see people cheering for today’s ‘Essential Workers.’ Cheering is pleasant, but did it have to come to this for workers, who were consistently present through thick and thin, snow, and shine to feel appreciated? Who knows? Maybe it is fortunate that folks are finally appreciating these previously unsung warriors. Sadly, it is just another day worsened by conditions that are substantially more deficient due to an invisible stalker that absorbs their lives.