Maximillian Alvarez discusses his most recent book on so-called ‘essential workers’ at the start of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, ‘The Work of Living’, with Chris Hedges.
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the existing crises of capitalism for workers everywhere. This was most obviously apparent for “frontline” or “essential” workers, who were forced by their need to survive to risk disease, disability, and potential death on a daily basis at their jobs. While lauded in media and culture in the early days of the pandemic, the rewards these workers have actually received have been precarity, damaged health, depressed wages, and for far too many, an early death. As a new ruling class narrative that insists the pandemic is over becomes hegemonic, the stories and ongoing crisis faced by these workers is fading from public view. In his most recent book, The Work of Living: Working People Talk about Their Lives and the Year the World Broke, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez chronicled the stories of frontline workers in the first year of the pandemic. Max joins the The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his book and the ongoing struggle of the working class under capitalism in the age of COVID-19.
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Chris Hedges: Working men and women kept the country from disintegrating during the pandemic. They staffed the hospitals, stocked the shelves, drove the buses, manned the cash registers, cooked and delivered the food, grew the produce, drove the trucks, and collected the garbage. Yet, these vital frontline workers were also sacrificed in disproportionate numbers in a system of grotesque inequality. In late 2020 and early ’21, at the height of the pandemic, Maximillian Alvarez conducted a series of interviews with workers battling to survive. They did not have the luxury of working from home, ordering what they needed from Amazon and having it delivered. Their jobs, difficult before the pandemic, now came with grave health risks and few benefits or protection. Alvarez, as he does in his podcast Working People, set out to tell their stories. He raises up the voices and lives of those the commercial media have largely rendered invisible, laying bare the huge divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Joining me to discuss his book, the Work of Living, and the untold stories of working men and women is Maximillian Alvarez, who is also the editor-in-chief of The Real News.
So I read these stories, and there were certain themes that came out, which I wanted to ask you about. And I want to begin with, which was a constant, even when you’re interviewing a burlesque dancer, is the importance of work, not just in terms of exchanging labor for a wage, but in terms of self-importance.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. One of the things that I hope comes through in this book, in the interviews with workers that I do on my podcast, Working People and here at The Real News Network is that working people aren’t dumb. Working people hold the world up. And there’s so much skill and knowledge and experience in everything that folks do and all the vital forms of labor that they perform to keep society running. And I think that you really see that in all of these interviews, whether it’s me talking with Willy, a gig worker in Texas who details all the ways that he goes above and beyond to get people their groceries, to navigate the craziness at this or that grocery store; or Kyle, a sheet metal worker in Louisville who really takes a whole lot of pride in the work that he and his coworkers do. Nick, a gravedigger in New Jersey. You just hear directly from the people who do this kind of work, all the attention and accrued knowledge and even love that goes into performing the vital labor that they do.
Chris Hedges: And yet, COVID made them ask questions about work and about their place in society that they hadn’t asked before.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I think that, honestly, as a society, there’s still a lot of big questions that we haven’t fully confronted since the onset of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. I think the most obvious is that COVID-19 forced all of us to confront our own mortality, in a way that perhaps we never had to before. And I think that you’re seeing the after effects of that. I do think that COVID-19 was a really concentrated, terrifying experience, but it was also an extended moment when workers realized that they are essential, that the work that we do does keep society and the economy running, even while the board members and shareholders and the corporate executives were able to ride out the storm in their second homes. It was people like the folks that I talked to in this book who kept us all from falling into the abyss.
And I think that working people haven’t forgotten that. They know how essential they are. And so I think that you are seeing that trickle out into things like the Great Resignation, record numbers of people quitting their jobs, a lot of whom I’ve talked to, who said, I got to sit down during COVID and think, is this what I want to be doing with my life? Should I be accepting the poor treatment that I’m getting at work? Should I be asking for more? If I died tomorrow, would I be pleased with how I’ve lived my life?
But it’s also, I think, translated to workers becoming more militant on the shop floor. We’ve seen a lot of strikes over the past couple years, a unionization wave that’s extending into industries that have been very hard to unionize, like the service industry. Because COVID, again, showed workers how little say they actually have over consequential decisions, whether that be when to open schools in-person, or what safety measures to implement in restaurants. If working people were the ones bearing the brunt of those decisions but had no input over those decisions, a lot of people realize that actually having a voice on the job and banding together to demand what we need is actually something worth fighting for. And we’re seeing that happening all over the place.
Chris Hedges: There’s a juxtaposition which you address in the book between the effusive lauding by the wider society of these “essential workers”. And yet, during the pandemic, they’re clearly treated as if they’re disposable.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I think that this is one of the biggest disconnects or logical knots that we’re still trying to unravel right now, because… I try to make this clear in the book, in the conversations that I have with these 10 amazing human beings, that there was also a lot of good that we saw in each other over the past two and a half years. Working people showed their mettle, not just at the workplace, but people sacrificed to bring their immunocompromised family and neighbors groceries. They found ways, even remotely, to stay connected to each other and to take care of one another.
And also there are these great moments, like the one captured by the great artist Molly Crabapple, who designed the cover for the book, where people were standing on their balconies banging pots and pans in honor of the frontline workers who were risking their lives, many of whom never asked to risk their lives. They were just trying to make a paycheck at that very scary moment. But I think we collectively acknowledged one another in that way and celebrated one another.
And corporations and businesses really capitalized on that and took it as a marketing opportunity. So many different businesses celebrated their frontline workers as heroes, and even used the opportunity to get favorable coverage in the press for giving their workers “hero pay”, like Amazon. Amazon was touted as this great benefactor for giving workers hero pay that it then ripped away from workers weeks later and no one said anything about it. And it was a very calculated move. The reason that businesses like Amazon did not call it hazard pay is because then they would have to keep paying it as long as the hazard persisted. But calling it hero pay makes it seem like it’s just something given in recognition of heroism.
But actually, on the shop floor, when workers would raise concerns over safety protocols, like Christian Smalls at Amazon’s facility in Staten Island, they were fired for it, or they were reprimanded for it. And all the while, I talked to Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, a nurse in California, for this book. She’s understandably, like so many healthcare workers, very bitter about the fact that their hospitals were celebrating the staff as heroes while not listening to those very same staff members when they were saying, here’s the PPE that we need. Here are the safe staffing ratios that we need to provide the care that every patient deserves. So workers were really, again, held up as these human-shaped cardboard cutouts. But when it actually came to listening to what workers on the shop floor were saying that they needed, they were, as always, comfortably ignored.
Chris Hedges: You do a good job of describing what work conditions are like. One person you interviewed, Nick, who’s… I was just stunned, and I’ll let you explain it. And of course, the pandemic exacerbates the difficulty and danger of these work conditions. But just lay that out. I mean, there are things that came with being a gravedigger that I didn’t expect, including, of course, direct exposure to toxins. But you can talk a little bit about Nick’s work and what happened during the pandemic.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, the interview with Nick Galuppo, a gravedigger in North-Central New Jersey was one of the first ones that I recorded for the book. So in a lot of ways, it set the tone for the other interviews that I did. And it really… I mean, I’ll let folks read it, but I think it’s a really fascinating conversation that he and I got to have, where we learn more about him, how he fell into working at a graveyard, what that work entailed before the pandemic hit, and the working conditions that he describes there. Without going into full depth, we’re not talking about your typical flat suburban memorial park. We’re talking about an older graveyard with differing soil contents that largely serves a Jewish population, where the customs and traditions are to bury people the day that they die, or at latest one day after.
So what that means is they’re not embalmed. They’re not being buried in metal caskets. They’re being buried in quarter-inch pine boxes with wooden dowels, so that everything is decomposable. And again, it’s an older cemetery, where you have this older equipment that guys are jerry-rigging to keep going.
And he describes it, Nick does, as a fast-paced construction site for the dead. And then COVID hit, and he talks about those early days in the pandemic. New York was really the epicenter of it in that area of the country. And Nick saw that. He and his coworkers saw that in the graveyard, because he tells me that, on average, they do about four or five burials a day at this cemetery before the pandemic hit. In those early months, that number tripled. And so these guys are running all over the place trying to do an essential service.
You can tell when Nick is talking how much care he takes with the work that he does. He takes very seriously the responsibility of offering families a chance to send their loved ones off into the great beyond as best they can. And so he understands the high stakes of doing what they do right. But when you are trying to do that, when you’ve got 15 burials lined up one after the other, and you’re running around this graveyard where some parts of the graveyard have water tables that are full, others where you have cave-ins, it really does paint a gruesome picture. But I think it makes you appreciate the invaluable work that folks like Nick do to provide that peace and comfort that so many of us depend on when we bury our loved ones.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about a little… He has to sometimes remove these disintegrated coffins. Talk about what happens.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, like I said, in this particular cemetery, given the population that it predominantly serves, the burial practices that are required of folks like Nick, and the geographical makeup of the cemetery that he’s working at, – We don’t go into the goriest details of what he does, but you definitely get a sense of how packed that cemetery is. And again, when folks aren’t embalmed, when you have soil that gets a lot of water in it, when people are buried so closely together, you can use your imagination that, if someone is being buried right next to a site where two people were buried the year before, and there’s been caves-ins… I mean, the one detail that Nick gives is they have to put these shale bars in between the two graves on the side, so that, essentially, human remains don’t fall into the hole where a new person is being buried.
And again, I think the thing that Nick says that is very profound is he says, our job is not just to bury holes and put caskets in it. Our job is to provide families with a sense of peace at a very critical moment, where they are saying goodbye to their loved ones for the last time. And so imagine feeling the burden of trying to provide that peace when you’re working in such a morbid environment, where so many things can go wrong, and you’re dealing with so many gruesome realities and old equipment. And at the same time, these guys are also terrified of getting sick. These guys are also… Go ahead.
Chris Hedges: There’s no personal protective equipment, hazmat suits, anything like that? This is Nick: you can get a pair of leather gloves or something, or you could shove some Vicks or a scarf in your nose if you want. That’s all the protection they’re given.
Maximillian Alvarez: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. And he also talks about how on construction sites and a bunch of other sites where this fast-paced industrial work takes place, you have a lot of OSHA regulations and rules put in place to protect workers. And so in a lot of sites, if it’s raining outside, if there’s inclement weather conditions, you’re going to shut down the work site for a day. With a graveyard, you can’t do that. People die, and they need to be buried. And so rain or shine, snow or sleet, these guys are out there doing this work.
And again, it was the perfect storm that Nick described, where numbers of burials have tripled. The conditions under which people were being buried were not getting any better. All the while, whatever lax OSHA regulations there are that pertain to graveyards, the fact of the matter is that on a day-to-day reality, management throws those out the window. They say, get those people in the ground. I don’t care how you do it. And Nick understands that. I don’t think that folks Nick necessarily want or agree with that, but they understand the reality in front of them. And this is what they put up with that a lot of us just never see.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about Willy. So he is a gig worker. I mean, I found this interesting, because it highlighted the stress that gig workers are under, same with Amazon workers, for instance. I mean, they are measured down to the second, and their performance is rated on how fast. He’s a shopper, so he has to get food, and what happens when there’s long lines? What happens, he writes, when he calls shopper support and nobody picks up? That kind of stress, can you speak to that?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I mean, gig workers, it’s a form of neo-feudalism, frankly, what we call the gig economy. And I point people to the great work of scholars like Veena Dubal, who’ve written about this extensively or listened to folks like Willy or Vanessa Bain, another great worker organizer who’s been speaking out about these horrendous conditions that gig workers have been working under even before the pandemic. But so many of us, including many people in my own family, were drawn into the promise of the gig economy 10, 12 years ago, because it promised that we could be our own boss. It promised a degree of independence.
Chris Hedges: Let me just interrupt, because I read in one of the questions you were a gig worker yourself, in essence. What did you work in a –
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, so I was a warehouse temp 10 years ago, while my mom and dad were both driving for Uber and Lyft. This was when the recession hit our family, like millions of other families, very hard. We eventually lost everything, including the house I grew up in. But working as a temp, that’s kind of like the proto-gig work. You’re not hired by the company, technically, which essentially means you can get paid less. You can be fired at the drop of a hat. There was even a class action lawsuit filed against the temp agency I worked for, because they were stealing our wages so much.
But yeah, the promise, again, for my folks and for folks like Willy, was that you can be your own boss. And actually, if you can make a decent take-home pay, and you can do it on your own time. What we have seen the trend over the past decade is what Bernie Sanders famously called a race to the bottom, where the take-home pay keeps going down. And these black-boxed algorithms that determine everything, they determine, like you said, what route people should take from their home or from a drop-off destination to the grocery store. It determines how long that should take. It determines their ratings and what they should get paid for this or that delivery.
And what Willy talks about is right when the pandemic was hitting, Shipt, which is the company he works for, which is the delivery service that is owned by Target Corporation, made adjustments to its algorithm and was telling workers, oh, this is going to be good for you. You’re going to get more take-home pay. And Willy noticed that his take-home pay was going down. So he started talking to folks online, and he talked to over 500 people in a matter of weeks, and was realizing that this was happening everywhere. And again, they have no control over that.
And they also have no control over all the things that can crop up when you’re trying to make those deadlines. If you’re trying to get a delivery in 20 minutes, but say it’s around Christmas time and the lines are super long, and there are only two people at checkout, and maybe the card that Shipt gives you doesn’t work. And so like you said, you got to call Shipt shopper service. No one’s answering the phone. All the while, your time’s clicking down, and you have no control over that. But you, as the worker, are the one who takes the brunt of it. Your ratings go down. Your pay goes down. And if your ratings go down enough, they can kick you off the platform, thus ripping away your lifeline.
And so whenever Willy would raise this with Shipt or post about it on Shipt-owned Facebook groups, he would get viciously ridiculed by the moderators and by fellow shoppers and told that the problem was with him. So this is really what the gig economy does, is it puts all the burden onto workers and all the responsibility and all the liability onto workers, while it gives them, in fact, no control over their schedule. And the algorithm is the all-seeing boss that tells them what to do every second of every day.
Chris Hedges: Well, he gets so desperate, he wants to hire someone to help him so he can make the time slot to stand in a line while he gets the food, and they won’t let him.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, again, speaking to the brilliance, I think, of everyday working people, Willy will be the first to tell you that he’s an introverted guy. And he is not a natural-born organizer. It’s very uncomfortable for him to talk to so many people. But what I think you see is a guy who realizes that he’s getting screwed over. And so he starts digging into the contract. He starts reading the fine print. He starts seeing that there’s a problem here, and he forces himself to talk to more people about these issues.
And the example that you’re pointing out was Willy, he’s like, I’ve worked as an independent contractor in construction before. Based on what I know from being an independent contractor, I can bring, say, my daughter with me to stand in line during Christmas time, because those lines take forever, while I go do the shopping. But in the Shopper’s Guide that Shipt gives us, they tell you that you can’t do that. And so again, it’s leaving you no option to actually make your quotas and stuff like that.
But what Willy also points out is that, legally, they can’t necessarily do that. So they can essentially walk right up to the line of telling you, you can’t have anyone helping you, but within the fine print of the Shipt shopper agreement, you actually can do it, because Shipt wants to leave itself a back door if it’s ever taken to court to say, oh, no, actually this is an independent contractor. This is what they’re always trying to balance. They want to tell workers that they’re independent, while taking away any independence that they actually have.
Chris Hedges: Was it in Willy’s or just a little aside that at Christmas the tips went down? Was that Willy?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, yeah. Willy, he talks about… And there’s a lot of factors that go into that. But yeah, he was noticing that his tips were going down, because he was working twice as hard and still making less. And so he was like, something’s going on here. But on top of that, he was noticing… People have probably all seen these commercials, whether it’s for Shipt or Instacart, they always say, our shoppers go above and beyond. And they were even in these shopper groups on Facebook, people were celebrating Shipt shoppers for buying balloons for their customers or feeding their dogs or walking their dogs. And Willy had the gall to ask his fellow Shipt shoppers, he’s like, why am I going to walk someone’s dog? If that dog gets loose and gets hit by a car, or if it bites me, I’m liable for that. I’m not getting paid for that. And yet, it’s being held up as a virtue, when in fact we should not be asked or expected to be doing this, when we’re already living so close to the bone.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the… Barbara Ehrenreich once said that being poor in America, or the working poor, it’s one long emergency, because your financial situation is so precarious that if your car breaks down, if you are laid off, your entire life crumbles. And there’s a moment in, I think she’s a bartender in the book, and that happens. Of course, the bar is closed. And she admits that she was an alcoholic. She had been sober, and she goes right back into the drinking. So talk about that precariousness. We know the financial cost, but throughout the book there’s a very deep emotional and psychological cost.
Maximillian Alvarez: There is. And I think one of the things that I hope people take away from the book and from this moment that we are in, this moment of labor unrest and worker action, is that so many of these problems existed long before COVID-19 ever hit our shores. Workers, who have been going on strike the past two years, these are long-brewing problems. We are headed towards a national rail shutdown because of problems that have been brewing in the industry for decades.
I mention that because, up till COVID-19 hit in 2020, so many people were living so close to the bone. There was study after study saying that one unexpected emergency expense would be enough to throw people into financial ruin, to the point of potentially losing the roof over their heads, so on and so forth. This is the reality that working people have been living in for a long time. Since the 1980s, working people in this country have been more productive than they ever have been, and yet they share in less of the fruits of that productivity while more of it gets pocketed by the 1%.
Chris Hedges: Well, then The New York Times ran a story a couple years ago. They said that if wages kept pace with productivity, the minimum wage would be $20 an hour.
Maximillian Alvarez: And yet, the federal minimum remains $7.25. It remains $7.25 in places like Texas. And this is something that, again, really comes through in the book, is that, because of how much we have limited the economic path to a comfortable, dignified life for working people, so many people were right on the edge when something like COVID-19 hit. Then you add on top of that the ways that we have hollowed out the social safety nets and public institutions that are supposed to protect people in that sort of environment. So Ashley, the bartender in Portland, also describes trying to get unemployment when the system essentially buckled. My parents couldn’t get unemployment for weeks because that system was buckling under pressure.
Chris Hedges: Isn’t this they were trying to call the unemployment office and they just put it on auto dial?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah.
Chris Hedges: So it would keep calling and calling. I just have a couple minutes left. You did mention the supplemental income and checks and extension of unemployment benefits. And that’s a theme in the book, and it turned out to be very, very important. All of that has ended, of course.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right, yeah. So I think one of the things that the workers who I talked to for this book are conflicted about is that they say, yes, for all the ways that the government, the market, the media failed us, the fact of getting one stimulus check, the extended unemployment benefits, the eviction moratorium, the pause on student debt payments, the the child healthcare tax credits, those were a major boon for a lot of folks, who, again, were living so close to the bone, to the point where some could make more on unemployment than they could working in the early days of the pandemic. And that, they tell me, gave them a chance to actually stop from the rat race for just a second and think, is this what I want to be doing with my life? Should I be working somewhere where I’m treated better? Should I quit my job and go look elsewhere? Or should I stay at my job and demand better pay?
And yet, the order-giving class could not let that happen. And so they ripped away pandemic-era vital social aid. And now they are jacking up prices on everybody and clawing all those gains back and calling it inflation. And we still haven’t raised the federal minimum wage, so you’re seeing a real class struggle here.
Chris Hedges: I think we should be clear that most of these programs were initiated by Donald Trump, and most of them were ended by Joe Biden.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, it was potentially paradigm shifting, especially if you compare it to how we responded to the financial crash in 2008. Families like mine were left to fall into the abyss, while everyone threw their weight behind the banks and the big corporations. What Donald Trump started by putting money directly in people’s pockets was a huge change in policy. And unfortunately, it seems like we’re doing everything we can to unlearn the potential lesson that we could have learned from that.
Chris Hedges: I just want to close it just quickly on mental health, because that’s another theme that runs through most of the interviews. There’s huge mental health struggles, not only among the people you interview, but also many of those people. You interview a teacher, for instance. And they have to deal, and they don’t have any resources.
Maximillian Alvarez: They don’t. I mean, right now the entire country’s talking about learning loss for students. And as Rebecca Garelli, an educator in Arizona and an organizer, tells me, she’s like, apart from parents, no one’s more concerned with students’ mental health than us, because we have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. Of course, teachers care about students’ mental health, their learning loss, their ability to develop socially. But if we cared about that as a society, we would’ve cared about that for decades leading up to this point, when resources like counselors on campus have been hollowed out. And there are so many ways that we can actually take care of our students and our educators, but we actually have to listen to what the educators are saying. And unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening right now.
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