On April 15, Randy Narvaez posted on Facebook that his best friend had just died of COVID-19.
“Way too close to home for me,” he wrote. “Yet I still see so many people out on the street. Not obeying this ‘stay at home’ order. Come on now people, this is serious!”
Narvaez worried he’d get infected, too. The 51-year-old Denver native, a nearly 30-year employee at King Soopers, based for the last couple years at the store on Capitol Hill, was, like many of his co-workers, disappointed — even “disgusted,” his sister said — by how many customers weren’t wearing masks or maintaining six-foot distancing. And he wanted company brass to do more to protect the staff.
He knew he was at risk, but kept going to work every day because he and his family needed the money.
“That’s his livelihood,” said sister Nikki Trujillo. “It wasn’t an option to stay home.”
On the morning of May 4, Narvaez texted Trujillo to say he thought he might have caught the virus. He had a headache, difficulty breathing, dizziness and no sense of taste or smell, he told her. She drove up from Parker and dropped him off at a hospital.
“I couldn’t go in with him, and I was so terrified that this was the last time I was going to see my brother,” Trujillo said through tears. “And it was.”
Narvaez, a West High School graduate and Broncos super-fan, died on May 17. His death is one piece in a growing mountain of evidence that while the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate by class, its harms clearly do.
In the 11 weeks since the coronavirus was confirmed in Colorado, data have shown that working from the safety of home is an economic privilege; that low-wage earners, and particularly undocumented workers, are more likely to be laid off or to stay in dangerous jobs out of fear of losing employment; that incarcerated people account for the largest known outbreaks in the state; that black and Latino Coloradans are disproportionately likely to catch the virus; that poorer families cannot adapt to online schooling as nimbly as wealthier ones; and that housing insecurity has skyrocketed, as many struggle to pay rent or mortgage, and fear eviction or foreclosure.
The Colorado legislature, which reconvenes Tuesday after pausing its session in March due to the coronavirus, faces a budget crisis that leaves the state with very little money to strike up new programs aimed at helping these or other populations.
State safety-net programs, plus private organizations, are stretched by unprecedented need — some food banks around the state, for example, say demand is now 10 times greater — and worried about a long-lasting spreading of socioeconomic gaps in Colorado.
“I am risking my life”
The disparity was vast to begin with.
Zion Xavier Justice, a Denver-based advocate for the disabled and the hungry who has experienced homelessness himself, said, “This has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But the have-nots have always been there, and will continue to be.”
A 2018 study authored by Diana M. Pearce of the University of Washington showed that even as the state’s economy boomed, about one in four households in Colorado lived below the self-sufficiency standard — that is, they didn’t have enough money to cover their basic necessities. Pearce said last week it’s too soon to guess how many Coloradans will fall below the standard in this recession, but that it’s clear the number will increase.
“I’m pretty worried,” she said, “because I think we’re pushing the bounds of tolerance for when people become homeless and hungry and have nowhere to go. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be pretty bad.”
Low-wage earners — defined by the state as those earning no more than $22 an hour — “have a notably higher share of layoffs than higher-paying industries,” the governor’s budget staff wrote earlier this month. Low-wage workers in the leisure and hospitality sectors make up the plurality of the roughly 450,000 Coloradans who had filed unemployment claims as of Wednesday. (The demand is so high that the state’s unemployment trust fund, which had been $1 billion in the black, is expected to be insolvent by early summer.)
Among those who’ve remained employed, it’s low-wage employees most likely to have to show up to work in person. Many are getting sick and some are dying, though deaths are so far less prevalent among retail workers than workers in industrial settings. For retailers, the state has only reported three worker deaths — all connected to a Walmart Supercenter in Aurora — but that data, updated weekly, lags, and does not yet count Narvaez’s death. The JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, which is currently reporting 264 cases, had an outbreak so bad that it shut down for two weeks in April, and has since reopened, even as workers there continue to die.
At the King Soopers where Narvaez worked, 11 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data released Wednesday.
“I have employees coming to me saying they don’t want to come to work. They want to leave, they’re afraid,” said Felicity Evitt, a front-end manager at the Capitol Hill King Soopers who knew Narvaez well. “They can’t go home, because who’s going to pay their rent?
“For $20.16 an hour,” she added, “I am risking my life.”
Company spokeswoman Jessica Trowbridge said that King Soopers “does not take lightly” the safety concerns of workers and the death of Narvaez. She said the company is “strongly encouraging all customers to wear masks” and “making every reasonable effort” to keep shoppers and staff safe.
But Evitt said she’s not empowered to refuse service to people who, despite a citywide mask order, come into the store without face coverings — roughly 30% of clientele, she estimated.
“If somebody from corporate came down and stood in my store for one hour, they’d feel different,” she said.
Said one employee at JBS meatpacking in Greeley, where similar pressures apply and where, the union says, eight employees have died, “Enjoy your meat. It’s at a big expense. People are getting sick and dying.”
That employee spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from a company he said is not ensuring safety for workers.
“We’re scared. We’re trying to take our personal precautions, but the company isn’t quite doing what they should be doing,” the employee said. “They do the six-feet distancing outside the plant or at a break, but while we’re in progress, we’re shoulder to shoulder, face to face.”
In an email to The Denver Post, JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said, “We have been doing all we can to promote social distancing within our facility, including increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, using dividers in common areas and on the production floor, and staggering starts, shifts and breaks.”
She added, “We understand some people are scared and anxious, but our focus remains on keeping this virus out of our facility.”
That the plant is open at all is a result of meat production being deemed essential. Both the president and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis have spoken about the importance of that plant and others like it to the national food supply. JBS closed for two weeks amid its outbreak, but it reopened with no plan to guarantee testing for all workers.
“The meat matters more than our lives,” the JBS employee said. “That’s how we look at it every day.”
Evitt said something similar: “Our lives are not as important as a carton of eggs, I guess.”
No safe option
Many workers are faced with an impossible choice every day: go to work and risk infection, or stay home and risk unemployment, thus risking housing, food and medical security.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of folks who are still employed are in jobs that are front-line, constantly battling whether they should go to work, how to keep themselves and their families safe,” said Isabel Cruz, advocacy coordinator for the Denver-based Center for Work Education and Employment.
That unemployment insurance is available — people can currently collect that money for up to 26 weeks in Colorado, though that limit may be extended — is of little comfort to some who live paycheck-to-paycheck.
Said Rachel Garnett, a King Soopers employee who worked with Narvaez, “When your job is taken away from you and you have to rely on unemployment, which is a headache within itself, it’s hard to know what bills you’re going to be able to pay.”
Garnett, who tested positive for the virus, said she’s also concerned by the lack of job prospects for low-wage workers who become unemployed, either via layoff or a personal choice.
“How do you find another job unless it’s with some big, giant corporation like Amazon and King Soopers?” she said. Trowbridge, the King Soopers spokeswoman, said that company and its sister grocer, City Market, have hired 6,000 people in Colorado amid this pandemic.
“They’re thriving and keeping their doors open,” Garnett said, “but if you (work there) you have to put yourself at risk.”
The company recently decided to end a “hero pay” program that gave workers an extra $2 per hour, replacing that program with one-time bonuses of $400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-time workers. Employees told The Post that this will result in lower net pay.
Trowbridge did not explain why the company shifted to the one-time bonuses, but added, “Our team is working hard and doing the very best that they can.”
For Garnett, the end of “hero pay” means she goes back to making $16 an hour. She has a second job, she said, because that’s not enough money to cover her $970 monthly rent and other expenses.
“I would love to have been able to work from home,” Garnett said. “So do you go to work and make money or not go to work, not make money, because the company doesn’t supply for their employees? If you have a family, … you have to put food on the table, but you’re putting your family at risk.”
Even some who are employed are having trouble putting food on the table. Calls to the hotline run by the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado have tripled in recent weeks, CEO Marc Jacobson said.
“Stronger than ever”
Jacobson described this moment of profound need and growing inequality as a possible turning point.
“We can either accept this as a new status quo or we can respond appropriately to make sure this doesn’t become the status quo,” he said. “Are we going to put forth the resources and effort to make sure this is a temporary blip?”
That, of course, remains to be seen.
Politicians are hopeful. Polis has said many times that Colorado can emerge “stronger than ever” from the pandemic, but it’s clear that major interventions will be needed if the state hopes even to get back to its pre-pandemic status, in which a quarter of households couldn’t cover basic expenses — much less if it hopes to cut into that figure.
State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who has voiced optimism for a “stronger than ever” bounce-back, said he believes the state “does not have the tools that are adequate for this moment,” but that the legislature has an opportunity now to change that, to some degree.
“My belief is that with careful legislative action, and working with the private sector, and really using this moment to reshape how we use our resources, I believe in that premise” of returning “stronger than ever,” he said.
Hansen and the other 99 state lawmakers have been on recess since March 14, but they’ll return to work on Tuesday. And early indications are that it’ll be hard to pass sweeping legislation that affords vulnerable populations the securities that coronavirus has stripped or reduced — housing protections, cheaper and more accessible health care, and paid sick leave, to name a few.
That’s in part because there’s very little money available in the state budget to spend on new programs. Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee has spent weeks hacking away at spending in an effort to cover a projected $3.3 billion shortfall. There isn’t nearly enough to maintain existing programs in this state, which means lawmakers interested in writing bills this year to close socioeconomic gaps can only get so ambitious.
Hansen’s a sponsor of House Bill 1203, which would give a tax credit to working-class families, including undocumented people. He estimated that this bill would put an average of $250 in the pockets of 60,000 families. He acknowledged that such a bill doesn’t solve a family’s problems, but feels it’s a positive step.
Meanwhile, bills to create a public health insurance option and to provide paid family and medical leave to workers both have been tabled. Lawmakers have ruled out a rent and mortgage freeze, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to pass a bill to give cash assistance to undocumented people who did not receive stimulus checks. The budget woes they presently face are expected to last years.
Pearce, the professor, agreed with Jacobson and Hansen that this state can make the “stronger than ever” platitude a reality. But getting there anytime soon would require broad buy-in from politicians, and seismic shifts in their collective imagination.
In the meantime, Pearce predicted, “There’s going to be a lot of pain.”
This content was originally published here.