There was a moment the night Joe Biden won the presidency that I’ll never forget. Addressing the nation from the drive-in rally in Wilmington, Delaware, he pounded his fist on the podium and told Black Americans like me, “You always had my back and I’ll have yours.” As a community organizer who helps Black women in low-wage retail jobs fight for their rights, safety, and survival, I know that my community needs bold action behind that commitment. After Black voters powered Biden to victory despite a deadly virus raging in our midst, we have more than earned a seat at the table in his new administration.
COVID-19 has attacked Black and brown families in devastating ways. Now is the time to heed the expertise of Black women in so many essential worker roles—including retail—and uplift our experiences and wisdom about how to solve this crisis. We are the ones keeping the country running, doing the caregiving work at home, balancing nearly unbearable economic pressures, and risking virus exposure every day while billionaires have profited over $1 trillion.
Biden says he wants to tackle the pandemic, structural racism, and economic recovery. He can do all of that at once by establishing a presidential commission on essential workers, comprised of front-line essential workers, to make prescriptive policy recommendations on how to monitor and ensure safe working conditions and set the agenda for an equitable recovery. Then, take immediate action in Congress to address the crisis for essential workers and our families with an Essential Worker Bill of Rights.
We need action because Black women like Melissa Love can’t wait. Love lives in Long Beach, California, and supports her father while working as an hourly associate at Walmart, with take-home pay around $13 an hour. Before Black Friday, she expressed fear of bringing the virus home, saying her store wasn’t doing enough to keep employees or the public safe. But Love isn’t just scared—she has concrete ideas about what needs to be done. She is campaigning for Five to Survive, a $5 per hour hazard pay bump and a voice in health and safety on the job—but Walmart isn’t listening. Despite the Walton family fortune swelling by $48 billion in pandemic profits, Walmart’s recent PR blitz announced no changes to their pandemic policies, and its “bonus” amounted to only a $0.73 raise for hourly associates. Black women need Biden to have our backs and mandate hazard pay immediately.
Courtenay Brown is another essential Black woman worker who shops for thousands of New Yorkers’ groceries every week as an Amazon Fresh employee. She regularly risks exposure to COVID-19 in a facility where Amazon workers are packed into close quarters, hiring continues to skyrocket to meet growing demand, and contact tracing is woefully inadequate if not impossible. Brown has said that on any given day, Amazon isn’t even aware of how many employees they have at the facility, because the turnover rate is so high. Brown is also campaigning for hazard pay, which Amazon has inexplicably canceled, and more transparency about virus outbreaks at the country’s second-largest employer. She knows Amazon has workers under intense surveillance and has fired people like her who speak up, but she says “We take a gamble every day, so I’m not scared.” Courageous leaders like Brown need a champion in Biden’s White House to not only unwind the disastrous policies of former Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, but fight for the rights of essential workers to be respected and protected in this pandemic and beyond.
COVID-19 is killing Black people at twice the rate of whites. Communities of color are suffering under the weight of two unrelenting pandemics—the coronavirus and our nation’s deeply rooted structural racism, which has created barriers to proper health care and robbed Black families of wealth and opportunities for generations. Because of the nation’s exploitative and racialized economy, which is rooted in the legacy of Black enslavement, millions of Black Americans have found themselves driven into public-facing, low-wage, low-opportunity service jobs. Now those jobs often mean risking your life just to put food on the table.
This economic crisis we’re facing in the fallout of the virus is hitting Black and Latina women the hardest. We are struggling to keep our heads above water just to keep food on the table and a roof over our families. School closures, the collapse of childcare, and the uneven impacts of mass layoffs have created what economists are calling the “great she-cession.” As this structural crisis falls on mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers, the unemployment rate—and poverty—for Black and Latina women is skyrocketing. This is again because of the systemic racism that has segregated BIPOC women into hard-hit public facing jobs that can’t be done online, and the underlying sexist expectations that caregiving work goes unseen and undervalued.
If Biden is to lead America forward, he must begin by acknowledging this segregated reality and this intersectional crisis for America’s women of color. We can’t build back better without reckoning with the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic. Essential workers like Love and Brown, the same working-class Black and brown women who propelled Biden to victory, must have an equal voice in the new administration. We must sit at the table alongside big corporations and labor unions, both historically headed by white men.
In the time it takes to read this column, the Walton family has made three or four times more than a Walmart associate like Brown makes in an entire year. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has watched his fortune grow by 62% since March. The pandemic has only worsened the gap between the billionaires and Black wealth, as new research reveals that the Waltons and Bezos alone now control more wealth than over 12.8 million Black American families.
As Shirley Smith, a Michigan retail worker and member of United for Respect, said, Democrats must “ensure that corporations no longer exploit this moment for selfish greed.” As our new president works to rein in the virus, deploy vaccinations, and get the country back on track, we need his longer-term recovery plan focused on working families, and on building Black wealth—not on helping Wall Street and big corporations that have been making a killing on the pandemic.
Black women have been through a lot in the past four years, and in the last 400. To paraphrase Shirley Chisholm: If a seat at the table isn’t offered to us in this new administration, we will be bringing folding chairs.
We know that if we want change, we must continue to organize, and to make sure Joe Biden keeps his promise to have our backs.