Commentary: The U.S. isn’t protecting enough blue-collar workers

By Joe Nocera

Bloomberg Opinion

My son Nick lives in New Zealand, which has done a remarkable job fighting the coronavirus. As of Friday, the nation of 4.8 million people had 1,456 confirmed cases and only 17 deaths. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government is now talking about not just containing the virus but eliminating it.

It helps that New Zealand is an island nation that can seal itself off from the rest of the world. It also helps that it has a centralized national health system. But as Nick explained to me the other day, Ardern has also imposed a lockdown unlike anything in the U.S.

New Zealanders aren’t allowed to drive except in emergencies and can only be out of the house for an hour a day, to get exercise or to buy essentials. (The police are enforcing the one-hour limit, Nick says.) At the pharmacy, only one customer is allowed in at a time, and clerks retrieve the goods from the shelf and put it in a bag, so customers never touch anything until they return home. The wait to get in the grocery store is usually around an hour, and if customers don’t have mask and gloves, they don’t get in.

Here’s what truly caught my attention. When I asked Nick how often he ordered takeout food, he said never. Every restaurant is closed. So is every shop aside from grocery stores and drugstores. There are no deliveries. E-commerce has been halted. Food-processing companies still operate, but virtually every other form of blue-collar work is shut down. (Citizens are surviving financially with emergency checks from the government.)

To put it another way, essential workers in New Zealand are truly essential. Although there are COVID-19 clusters in New Zealand — a church, a rest home, a wedding party — workplaces have largely been virus-free.

Compare that with the U.S. At a Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota, more than 700 workers have been infected. Dozens of other U.S. meat-packing plants also have high rates of infection, according to an investigation by USA Today. The Boeing Co., which shut down for a month, is calling back 27,000 workers to its Puget Sound facility in Washington —even though the state’s stay-at-home order will remain in place for at least two more weeks. As of early April, 135 Boeing workers had tested positive for the virus.

General Dynamics owns the Bath Iron Works, a Naval shipbuilder in Maine. In early April, the union asked the company to shut it down after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. The company says it can’t do so because the U.S. Navy is insisting that it stay open.

Indeed, according to Defense One, a website that covers the defense industry, the Pentagon has been so insistent that military contractors stay open that executives are worried that the government is forcing them to “choose between sending employees to factories or defaulting on contracts.” They’ve largely decided to send employees to factories: Bloomberg News reports that only 86 of the 10,509 defense industry sites have closed because of the virus.

Meanwhile, FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. continue to deliver packages as if nothing were amiss, even though in Houston alone at least 25 package workers have come down with the virus — three each from the two delivery companies, as well as 19 people who work for Inc. (The three companies told a Houston Chronicle reporter that they were taking steps to protect workers.)

Ah, yes, Amazon, the company so many are relying on to get products they can’t get with so many stores closed. At Amazon headquarters in Seattle, the white-collar employees are working from home. But those hundreds of thousands of blue-collar employees working in the company’s enormous warehouses are still going to work every day. Amazon isn’t saying how many of its workers have come down with the virus, but reports surfaced in late March that at least 10 warehouses had coronavirus victims.

The pandemic has led to some sporadic protests from Amazon workers who contend that the company is forcing them to work in unsafe conditions. Amazon, for its part, insists that it is going above and beyond to protect its blue-collar work force. In response to an article in Tech Crunch, the company said that “masks, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, increased time off, increased pay, and more are standard across our network because we care deeply about the health and safety of our employees.”

Is Amazon shipping goods that are essential? Of course. You can get toilet paper and paper towels from Amazon (though the primo brands appear to be out of stock). But it’s also still selling everything else, much of which is not essential at all.

We’ve all learned that the virus spreads between people who are in close proximity. No matter how much Amazon says it is protecting its workers, they are inevitably going to come into close contact with one another at least some of the time. And why? Because the company hopes to use the crisis to further solidify its dominance of online shopping? That hardly seems like a good enough reason.

There are two issues here, it seems to me, one practical and one moral. The practical issue is that warehouses and factories full of workers are coronavirus spreaders. That should seem pretty obvious by now. If the Bath Iron Works stopped building ships for three or four months, would that truly harm the national defense? If meat processors used fewer workers standing further apart, it would likely mean a short-term meat shortage. But it might also mean flattening the curve more quickly.

And if Amazon decided that it would ship only truly essential goods, that might not further its growth strategy, but it might prevent some workers from getting COVID-19. The U.S. has categorized as “essential” a ridiculous number of businesses. Yes, we can get whatever we want online, virus or not. But at what cost?

The moral issue is this: We take it for granted that blue-collar workers will risk infection from a deadly virus to provide the society with the things it wants —whether it’s a ship or a pair of sneakers bought online. Yet the white-collar work force is largely avoiding that same risk by quarantining themselves at home.

It pricks the conscience —or at least it should. We talk about the heroism of doctors and nurses, of grocery clerks and bus drivers. And they are heroes. They are also the truly essential.

Thousands of other workers are putting themselves on the line for no good reason other than their bosses are demanding it. Following New Zealand’s lead would mean white-collar types would have to make some small sacrifices. But if we return to what essential truly means, we may also save lives.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and The New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast “The Shrink Next Door.”