Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at Arizona’s essential workers and is funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. Arizona Luminaria was selected as one of the newsrooms to participate in SJN’s Labor Cohort. 

What does it mean for a worker to be essential? Despite a lot of talk about essential workers over the last two-plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no quick or easy answer to that.

On its face, labeling some workers as essential means that their work is so necessary that society can’t function without them. But is the work essential — or the worker? And to describe only some workers in Arizona and across the nation as essential implies that others are not essential, or expendable.

While the work of an emergency room doctor, a teacher, or a firefighter clearly seems necessary to the overall health of the local, state and national community, aren’t other workers just as critical? Society would soon collapse if people weren’t able to put food on the table. In order to do that, communities need not only the grocery store clerks, stockers, and managers, but a long chain of other people, from farm laborers and truck drivers to construction workers, mechanics, teachers and others toiling away, many of them largely out of public view.

All to say, aren’t all workers essential?

Nope — at least not according to the government.

“No one knew the term essential worker before the pandemic,” Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. 

Not only was the term new, but, from the first months of the pandemic until today, “who we include in that bucket has also changed,” Kinder said.

While many associate the term with those most visible, or frontline workers, there’s all that behind-the-scenes work that’s essential to essential workers.

This is the first article in a series of solutions journalism stories about Arizona’s essential workers. In the coming months, Arizona Luminaria will be publishing profiles and in-depth reports exploring the daily life of nurses, construction workers and centering others whose labor is vital to making our state thrive. 

There’s no simple fix, and solutions must be tailored to each sector or profession, but higher wages, hazard pay, workplace protections, and the ability to organize were standard responses from the workers we spoke with.

A recent report from the Center for the Future of Arizona also found that nearly 80% of poll respondents supported a workforce housing option for essential workers. For undocumented workers who provided essential labor throughout the pandemic, as well as before and after it, the solution included all of the above as well as a path to legal status. 

“We’ve heard a lot of chatter, chatter, chatter,” from politicians and others promising to support workers, “now we’re ready for the actual help,” said Francisco, a day laborer who didn’t want to share his last name because of his undocumented status.

Currently, 21 states lean on federal guidance for defining who qualifies as an essential worker. That’s based on 16 critical infrastructure sectors, which include the obvious food and agriculture, emergency services, and healthcare, but also a few sectors that might sometimes get overlooked.

People want to make sure their dams don’t crumble, nuclear reactors don’t explode, and that they maintain healthy water and wastewater services. All of which makes hundreds of other job positions absolutely essential.

More jobs are essential to the modern economy than a lot of people realize. According to the federal government’s guidance on the healthcare sector, for example, that industry is “highly dependent on fellow sectors for continuity of operations and service delivery, including Communications, Emergency Services, Energy, Food and Agriculture, Information Technology, Transportation Systems, and Water and Wastewater Systems.”

Twenty three states, including Arizona, have issued their own guidance as to which workers qualify as essential. Federal guidance describes essential workers as “typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations, which itself is “a large, umbrella term encompassing sectors from energy to defense to agriculture.” 

Arizona’s definition comes, in part, from an April 3, 2020 memo from Gov. Doug Ducey and an executive order, which included an array of essential work, from laundry services and hardware supply services to media, educational institutions and healthcare. The list was so vague that some Arizonans were left wondering if their job was essential or if they would be banned from working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Guidelines trickled out of Ducey’s office, including one that outlined several industries — barbers, spas, nail salons, tattoo parlors and others — that must send workers home and cease operations because they could not comply with health and safety requirements.

But, still, what does it mean to be deemed essential? Does the designation actually matter? While some communities took to banging on pots and pans every night to celebrate the sacrifices of healthcare workers, what concrete steps did officials actually take to make sure essential workers were able to do their work safely and sustainably?

According to Kinder, the designation itself was important: “The country opened their eyes and saw grocery workers, delivery workers, with so much more appreciation.”

Suddenly, with the “essential” epithet pinned to them, grocery workers were seen as working in an almost noble profession — sacrificing their own safety to help feed their community. And that shift translated into more public support for raising the minimum wage and for supporting unions.

But, despite those attitudinal shifts, “You’re not seeing the scale of policy change, corporate change, align with the scope of public sympathy,” Kinder said.

The Arizona Legislature introduced a bill to increase hazard pay for healthcare workers — adding an additional 5% to their salaries — but it didn’t pass. Pima County separately offered county workers with public-facing jobs an extra $2 an hour. But state or local hazard pay also missed out on some key industries, such as construction workers or restaurant workers.

One study, for example, found that line cooks had the highest COVID-19 mortality rate among all California workers. That profession certainly didn’t get much attention or popular concern, and wasn’t seen as particularly dangerous. Yet these kinds of workers were, as Kinder put it, the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.

Nurse January Coventry, who works in the pulmonary intensive care unit at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson says the support of healthcare workers didn’t last long. Credit: Michael McKisson

But even those hailed for their brave service didn’t get shown love for long.

“We went from heroes to zeroes,” said January Coventry, a nurse in the pulmonary intensive care unit at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson, describing the start of the pandemic until now.

Arizona has long been known as a right to work state that too often overrepresented business owners and underrepresented the people keeping those businesses running. Now, Arizona Luminaria is listening and sharing the voices of workers who want rights, who want business, community and civic leaders to know what their lives are really like and what it will take to build a stronger force to support labor in the Southwest.

Reach out to us for tips, comments, or to share your own experience as an essential worker living and working in Arizona. Please let us know what other labor issues you want us to dig into so you can learn more about solving problems and supporting workers.

Virus and profit

With American workers struggling and dying, the American Rescue Plan Act pumped nearly $2 trillion into the economy, with $350 billion sent to state and local governments. 

Some states, such as Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Michigan, funneled some of that money into hazard pay for low or modest-wage essential workers. Kinder, who interviewed dozens of frontline essential workers throughout the pandemic, found that “no issue was raised more often than their desire to receive hazard pay.”

Pennsylvania used $50 million of federal funding for employer grants to reimburse hazard pay of up to $3 per hour for workers, with a focus on low-paid workers. Because of high demand, however, only 10% of eligible workers received the extra compensation. 

While Arizona did not offer state-supplemented hazard pay, Pima County offered an extra $2 an hour of extra pay to some frontline essential workers. A bill was introduced to offer Arizona’s healthcare workers extra pay, but it stalled in the legislature.

Many large companies and corporations saw huge boosts in profits during the pandemic. But their workers — not so much. 

The moves from the states that focused on their workers were necessary and still far from enough.

“Overwhelmingly, financial gains benefitted wealthy shareholders and executives, while frontline workers experienced the greatest losses and benefited minimally from company success,” according to a Brookings Institution report.

The report also highlights a host of policy recommendations, including mandating some basic information sharing about company profits and pay structures, as well as more robust laws protecting workers’ right to organize. Raising the minimum wage and offering workers more decision-making power within their company are also keys to basic health protections and greater equity.

Some companies, in the initial stages of the pandemic, did offer modest raises to their employees, but even with those increases, take home salaries still didn’t reach a living wage. Even those raises have also since been effectively erased by inflation.

Workers at Walgreens, Target, CVS, Walmart and UPS — companies many of us relied on during the pandemic — still do not make the $18 an hour that is considered a living wage. Meanwhile, according to the Brookings study, in the first two years of the pandemic, showed that shareholders at the 22 large companies they analyzed raked in an additional $1.5 trillion.

Arizona wasn’t without its share of companies that saw a boost in profits during the pandemic.

Instead of stock buybacks, those and other companies could have used those extra profits to dramatically increase their workers’ wages by as much as 40% in some cases, according to the Brookings Institution. And for companies that fared poorly during the pandemic, their lowest-wage workers absorbed most of that blow — by being furloughed or laid-off — even as company executives saw their salaries remain steady, often in the millions.

Arizona’s response

In Arizona, the Child Care Resource and Referral program offered child-care scholarships to low-income families of certain essential workers. The program invested more than $240 million since March of 2020 to “ensure that quality child care remains available for essential workers throughout the COVID pandemic, and parents are able to return to work knowing their children are well cared for in a quality setting,” according to an emailed statement from Child and Family Resources.

From December 2020 until September 2021, the essential worker scholarship program helped extend childcare to 11,134 kids. And 43% of those kids’ parents worked in healthcare.

That was certainly a help for the parents of those children, but there are almost a half a million children under 5 in the state, and more than a 1.5 million children under 18. That translates into a lot of parents who didn’t receive any extra help. Arizona’s efforts mirrored other states: dumping money, but it’s unclear how many parents and essential workers were left without government help for their childcare needs and moreover, why.

In 2021, as COVID vaccines became available, Arizona, following other states, offered them first to medically vulnerable and older residents, and then to workers in a few critical industries, including food and agriculture, transit, and postal workers.

The city of Tucson, in collaboration with the Industrial Development Authority, a non-profit state agency that supports private and public borrowers, earmarked $625,000 to assist with closing costs on homes for 250 essential workers. If divided evenly, that would equal $2,500 per household.

Besides these modest measures, how else did the state help support and keep safe essential workers? How did state and city leaders help make work more ethical and equitable for Arizonans?

In talking to healthcare workers, teachers, electricians, and construction workers — all of whom were officially deemed essential — the answer is that overall treatment hasn’t really changed that much.

We didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy because of that designation,” said Javier Soto, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW. “We didn’t feel we were part of the essential workers team.”

Other essential workers, such as nurses, did get the warm and fuzzy treatment, and felt like they were part of the team, but the feeling didn’t last. 

January, the Tucson nurse, described the initial outpouring of support she and other healthcare workers were regaled with: boxes of donuts and other donated foods, loving messages and hearts chalked into hospital sidewalks, gift packages from local kindergarten classes, t-shirts, even a small medal celebrating her bravery.

“But what’s the sustainability of that?” January asked. A few months into the pandemic, the free meals and t-shirts stopped coming.

Undocumented day laborers, a dozen or more of whom congregate every morning at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, saw their work increase with the pandemic. They credit the uptick to larger construction and landscaping businesses taking precautions and cutting back operations.

Those precautions weren’t readily available to people who are undocumented and were not made eligible for federal stimulus funds, yet still largely had to keep working.

“We spend all day fighting for just the basics, to get paid, do some work,” said Francisco, who does day labor ranging from roofing to electrical to landscaping.

Tucson created the Immigrant Relief Fund to give $600 prepaid cards to nearly 2,000 immigrants in Tucson and South Tucson who were ineligible for stimulus payments or unemployment.

“We would have liked hazard pay,” Jimmy Ciardulli of IBEW said of electricians. “Nurses got hazard pay. If we’re going to be considered essential, hazard pay should have been kicked down to construction workers too. We put ourselves in harm’s way to make sure this country was being built and moving forward.”

“Did we feel essential?” Ciardulli asks. “Our guys just go to work. We clock in and go to work.”

Here we’ll explore some proposed solutions offered by politicians, academics, and, most crucially, by workers themselves.

A worker demonstrates her skills last month at the Chicago Women in Trades facility. Illinois was one of the top 10 states for union representation last year, at 13.9% of workers, more than 2.5 times Arizona’s rate of 5.4%, despite slow gains in the state. (Photo by Scott M. Allen/U.S. Department of Labor)

How to make ‘essential’ sustainable

A lot of the larger construction and landscaping companies that scaled down their operations at the beginning of the pandemic are back — often bringing their own workers with them, and almost always demanding work papers — which leaves undocumented day-laborers struggling.

Tim Bee, vice president for Southern Arizona of the Arizona Builders Alliance, confirmed that the “construction market flourished during the pandemic, and continues to do so.” Bee explained that the state has a “tremendous workforce shortage,” or a shortage of workers legally allowed to complete current projects.

“We know there are jobs,” said Francisco of undocumented workers. “But just a lot of them we can’t work.” Asked what the solution would be, another worker, Feliciano, put it simply: “papeles.” Papers, in English, slang for documentation of legal immigration status.

Undocumented workers aren’t the only ones wanting a major change.

Both Soto and another electrician and member of the IBEW repeatedly stressed the difficulties of working in a “right to work” state. “Right to work” is essentially a euphemism for state laws that prohibit unions from collecting fees from workers who are not union members. The law is one of many ways anti-union legislatures make collective organizing more difficult. “Right to work for less, is what we say,” Dick Solomon of IBEW said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5.4 % of Arizona workers were represented by a union in 2021. With an average rate of 10.3%, that makes Arizona one of the least unionized states in the country.

Solomon and others want more project labor agreements in the state, which would prioritize local and organized labor, rather than letting cities and municipalities simply go for the lowest bidder, which is often an out-of-town contractor that may not employ locals. 

Another labor provision, the Davis Bacon Act, would guarantee local prevailing wages be granted for public work projects. In Arizona, prevailing wage laws are explicitly prohibited for state or city projects, so workers are only guaranteed higher wage rates for federal projects.

Despite the challenges, and the weakening of labor laws, nationally, the number of union applications has gone up significantly in the past two years. “Workers need a voice, someone needs to have their back,” Kinder, from the Brookings Institution, said, describing labor laws as broken.

“The lessons of the pandemic have not translated into reformed labor laws,” she said

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety protocols, didn’t go far enough, Kinder argues. Some hazard pay bonuses were fleeting. Some cities took it upon themselves to pass ordinances demanding employers extend hazard pay. But without organized labor to strengthen or make permanent these small victories, many labor experts believed they were never going to last long.

One striking example of the power and public benefit unions provide is that unionized nursing homes had lower mortality rates, as much as 30% lower, than in non-unionized nursing homes. Nursing homes are where about 40% of all COVID deaths occurred. According to the study, which focused on nursing homes in New York, “Unions generally demand high staff-to-patient ratios, paid sick leave, and higher wage and benefit levels that reduce staff turnover.” 

Unionized nursing homes also more successfully advocated for PPE, demanded that employers mitigated workplace hazards, and educated workers about their health and safety rights. In Tucson, early on in the pandemic, nurses at St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s Hospitals voted to approve a first-ever contract for registered nurses in the state

Besides reformed labor laws and increased pay, some labor experts believe workers are still lacking a clear definition of who is deemed essential and are calling on Congress to “designate one or more federal agencies to regularly update the list of frontline occupations and essential industries.” Other lessons, like treating workers with dignity and respect, may also turn out to be temporary.

Investing in education

This May, the state of Arizona announced it had an unprecedented budget surplus, and teachers began calling for a massive reinvestment in education.

Some of the people who were not designated as essential, though they keep schools running, were the many non-teaching staff members, including custodial and janitorial workers, bus drivers, tech workers, and others. In Arizona schools, there are just as many classified, or educational support workers, as there are teachers.

When schools first began going remote in the spring of 2020, many of those workers were unable to keep doing their jobs. “The first immediacy was how do we keep these people employed?” says Marisol García, president of the Arizona Education Association, the largest education union in the state.

Arizona ranks at the bottom for teacher salaries, with the average salary in 2019-2020 at $50,782. The national average for teacher salaries is $64,133.

The education association pushed hard to make sure every educational employee would continue to be paid despite some of them not being able to complete their typical jobs. Bus drivers became deliverers of food. Others were assigned professional development. 

“What we were concerned about is that we’d have almost 100,000 people immediately unemployed,” García said.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but jobs were lost. In the Peoria Unified School District, for example, there are 200 positions open in the classified ranks, which means non-teaching jobs that are nonetheless essential to the basic functioning of schools. 

“There are some schools who now are only getting cleaned once or twice a week, which is unbearable and unsanitary,” Garcia said.

The Arizona Department of Education received funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, commonly known as the COVID stimulus package, to provide new Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, (or ESSER III) Fund grants to support schools. 

That money allowed a lot of districts to raise salaries, which freed up existing funds to pay janitors or cafeteria workers up to the living wage, Garcia said. That helped keep a lot of these workers stay employed, but they still took a hit with inflation.

The emergency relief money was split into three pots: the Department of Education, individual school districts, and then directly to the governor for discretionary use. According to Garcia, “the governor chose to use it in ways that we felt were actually against keeping the schools healthy,” including giving additional money to schools that were the first to resume in-person education, as well as grants to families if they didn’t want their kids to attend schools that required masks.

In January of 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department opened an investigation into the potential illegal use of that money. The investigation is still pending.

Neither Ducey’s office nor the Treasury Department responded to repeated requests for comment.

More solutions, more respect

It wasn’t all about the money, either. For educational workers, the state’s undercutting of mask mandates fractured the community, Garcia explained.

“The kids were nasty to each other. The parents were nasty to each other, showing up to school board meetings and screaming, spitting on teachers,” she said. Some teachers had to be escorted to their cars after school board meetings.

“The governor flamed those fires and ran with it,” Garcia said.

When Garcia was asked about solutions, she said, “The reason I’m so grateful to help lead a union in this state is that’s what unions do: we fight for wages, we fight for working conditions, and we fight for respect.”

Despite lowering infection rates across the country, the pandemic is not over. It’s not too soon, García and others insist, to ask what we’ve learned: How do we protect ourselves and our community? How do we keep each other safe?

Besides basic resource allocation: paying workers what they deserve, a lot of it is also about basic respect, explained January and other workers: Coming to terms that essential should be more broadly applied and that keeping a segment of our society in legal precarity — as undocumented workers remain — is unsustainable.

While nurses at two Tucson hospitals were able to unionize to guarantee their voices are part of the solutions and mandate access to basic PPE, rests between shifts, and regular wage increases, nurses at hundreds of other hospitals across the state have no such guarantees. 

“Nursing is from the heart,” January said. But she also says that to give from your heart, you have to have something left to give.

Arizona Luminaria will be exploring more solutions embraced by essential workers who sacrificed their time, health and families to keep society safe and running. We will be listening to and sharing the stories of workers in health care, transit and food and agriculture jobs, as well as those, not officially designated essential, but who were determined to find ways to keep their communities afloat.

Despite mutual-aid programs with free food co-ops for those with or without legal immigration status to childcare, job training and housing programs that protect people from becoming homeless, many workers endured hardship and loss. Now, they’re increasingly demanding a say in how to secure an Arizona economy that listens to and cares for the people performing essential labor.

“We can’t just move on,” Kinder said. “If we haven’t learned the lesson that we need to better support all of our workers, then shame on us.”

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...