1 in 4 Detroit workers fight on front lines against COVID-19

Roughly one in four workers living in Detroit are deemed "essential" and are working on the front lines of the coronavirus  pandemic, risking their lives to help keep critical services running, an analysis of U.S Census Bureau data has found.

More than two-thirds are women, and more than half have children in Detroit, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data in the country’s 100 largest cities. It looked at those working in six industries: grocery, public transit, delivery and warehouse, cleaning services, health care and social services.

Marsha Jenkins, an environmental house keeper for Lakepointe Senior Care and Rehab Center in Clinton Township, poses for a photo in front of her home in Detroit, May 3, 2020.

In Detroit, nearly a quarter of front-line workers live in poverty and 12% report not having health insurance, suggesting many work with little to no safety net. The workers come from an area that mirrors Detroit's boundaries but includes residents from a few surrounding communities.

The analysis provides a glimpse of how the front-line workforce that lives in Detroit compares to that in other large cities, but it does not provide a comparison to the workforce in outstate Michigan or the nation as a whole. That's because census data is less reliable when measuring smaller populations.

While the public has rallied behind doctors, nurses and other health professionals in the last six weeks, other front-line workers, such as janitors, grocery workers, home health aides and bus drivers, in lower-paid care and service jobs said they can’t afford to stay home to minimize their health risk.

Marsha Jenkins' anxiety rose this spring as she saw her co-workers and residents of a Clinton Township nursing home, where she works as a housekeeper, gradually get sick. There wasn't enough personal protection equipment in the early days of the outbreak, and she said she ended up buying her own mask. 

It was so stressful she took a few days off but knew she had to return. 

“I can’t stop working,” said Jenkins, a 49-year-old Detroiter. “I need to pay the bills. I just prayed through it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

At home, she worried about making the rent after her husband was laid off from his auto supplier job. They received some state aid to help with utility bills. And he recently got called back to work, but now they are worried he'll be at risk of getting sick. 

Meanwhile, her 12-year-old son is home with little contact from his teachers. 

"I want to be home, too, but I cannot be home because of the job I chose," Jenkins said. "I had to toughen up and jump back in."

Glenn Tolbert, Vice President, ATU Local 26, speaks during a press conference about the concerns of the bus drivers and the new policy that will help them stay healthy during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, March,17, 2020.

How Detroit's workers compare

Like Detroit, front-line workers across the nation are also are mostly women, people of color and more likely to be immigrants, according to the data. More are living below the federal poverty line or hover just above it. Nationally, 64% are women, 60% are people of color and 12% are living in poverty in the top 100 cities.

Detroit's share of working residents in these front-line industries (24%) puts it in the top 20 of the nation's biggest cities, slightly below other comparable cities, such as Cleveland (26%), Baltimore (27%) and Newark, New Jersey (29%). 

The range is 42% of workers in front-line industries in Rochester, Minnesota (home of the Mayo Clinic), to a lower of 14% in Washington, D.C. Nationally, 21% of all workers are in front-line industries in the 100 cities examined.

The AP adopted the definition of “front-line” from a recent report done by the New York City comptroller aimed at better addressing their needs. It doesn’t include all industries that some states consider to be on the front lines, including public safety employees.

Mayor Mike Duggan opened the city fairgrounds to test every essential worker for COVID-19, including for 400 postal workers were now also being tested.

Chef Desean Washington-Jones, who started a catering business called D Street Creations after being laid off due to COVID-19, prepares a birthday meal for clients in his Detroit home, April 30, 2020.

“We know that many of those essential workers are middle- to lower wage type workers might not have access to a doctor and getting to the hospital or the rest of it,” Duggan said Monday.

“I would say to every single one of those workers: We will get you a free test. We are getting the results back basically in 48 hours. Have your employer call.”

The Motor City has been one of the hardest-hit communities in the nation, and COVID-19 has had a disproportionate toll on the state’s black residents. About 14% of Michigan's population is black, but 41% of the state's coronavirus-related deaths were black residents, according to state figures.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat whose district includes part of Detroit, said many of her neighbors’ struggles existed before the pandemic and are now heightened, from low wages to insufficient health care to working multiple jobs to make ends meet. 

"A month or two ago, they were considered ‘unskilled’ workers. Today, they’re ‘essential,’" Tlaib said. 

"Now that they’re considered essential and putting their lives on the line so that people can have groceries, so we continue various goods getting to families — I’m just asking that we don't go back to what was referred to as 'normal.' That wasn't normal."

Among the Detroiters with the least means are those in the building cleaning industry, such as janitors and pest control workers, the data shows. More than 41% are living in poverty and 20% have no health insurance and use public transit, according to the data. 

More than a third of Detroiters working on the front lines are older than 50, but almost half of those working in public transportation are over 50.

Duggan said he was surprised that postal workers hadn’t been "watched out for” and tested earlier because of their daily interactions with the public.

Bus drivers in particular are at risk and scared, said Glenn Tolbert, the president of Detroit’s bus drivers union. At least 50 of his 500 members have gotten the coronavirus, he said. Driver Jason Hargrove, 50, died April 1 after he complained online that a passenger refused to cover her mouth while coughing. 

City officials have instituted needed safety precautions, but passengers still aren’t always wearing masks, Tolbert said.

"We see more sick people than doctors," he said. "(Drivers) are still scared. They are still doing their jobs."

The analysis used five-year census estimates from 2014-2018 in geographies called Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs). They don't exactly match city boundaries but are close.

The Detroit data includes Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the Grosse Pointes. (A closer look at Detroit-only numbers shows they aren't significantly different.)

There were about 249,000 Detroiters employed in the labor force in 2018, according to Census Bureau data. 

A group of 20 or so Amazon employees walked out due to safety concerns in Romulus, Michigan

COVID-19 bares harsh realities

Even before the health crisis, many of these workers were barely just getting by, said Jasmine Tucker, director of research for the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

"This pandemic has laid bare the harsh realities that the people in these jobs are facing and how underpaid they are,” Tucker said. 

Latasha Fuller, 46, of Detroit said she stopped going to her job as a packer at an Amazon facility in Romulus a month ago over concerns about sanitation and lack of protective gear, such as masks.

Fuller worried that she could catch the virus from co-workers in the high-density facility and infect her husband, who has diabetes and asthma that make him at higher risk for complications were he to contract COVID-19.

She said the company should have shut down the facility for deep cleaning after at least two employees tested positive for the virus. She took advantage of unpaid time off that Amazon offered, but now she worries she could lose her job.

Amazon said it’s spending $800 million on protective equipment including masks for employees in the first half of the year, is doing enhanced cleaning and providing leave of absence options. The company also boosted pay for hourly employees by $2 per hour in the United States and doubled the base pay for overtime hours worked, a spokesman said.

Many advocates say those kinds of gestures aren't enough. They are pressing for something like an essential employees' "bill of rights" that could include protective gear and hazard pay for front-line workers.

"They were already in survivor mode, so that extra $2 is not going to help them pay for child care while they’re considered essential workers and there’s no school," Tlaib said. 

"This is a global pandemic. We’re in the middle of the crisis, and we’re still doing Band-Aids — giving folks $2,000 (in stimulus money) and a mask that you have to reuse.”

Marsha Jenkins, an environmental house keeper for Lakepointe Senior Care and Rehab Center in Clinton Township, poses for a photo in front of her home in Detroit, May 3, 2020.

Working for pay increase

Jenkins said she hasn't gotten hazard pay yet because the area she is cleaning isn't where COVID-19 patients are isolated at the Clinton Township nursing home. She is a member of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, the largest union of nursing home professionals in the state, which is working to get her the pay increase.

She doesn't think society values front-line workers such as herself enough for the risks they take. 

"I don't think (the hazard pay) is enough," she said. "We have to work."

Leaders should be thinking about how to support vulnerable front-line workers better in the long-term, said Afton Branche, a researcher with the Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility at the University of Michigan.

UM Poverty Solutions research has found the vast majority of Detroiters are without a college degree, which means they are more likely to be in a job that doesn’t require one.

“These days, those are the very same jobs that are considered essential during the pandemic,” Branche said “Public education has sort of been disinvested in here and college costs quite a lot, so we have lower educational attainment in Detroit than other large cities.”

Many lawmakers have acknowledged a need for more for more resources and incentives for employees considered essential, but they frequently have unclear funding sources and face uncertain prospects.

Tlaib proposed giving a prepaid debit card loaded with $2,000 each month to each American during the pandemic, and that same card could be recharged with $1,000 a month until one year after the end of the crisis.

Chef Desean Washington-Jones, who started a catering business called D Street Creations after being laid off due to COVID-19, prepares a birthday meal for clients in his Detroit home, April 30, 2020.

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, dropped a bill last week to incentivize employers to offer raises or "patriot bonuses” to workers on the front lines and Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, wants a new federal task force to disseminate health and safety guidance to employers about how best to protect essential workers.  

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township proposed giving essential workers a government-funded boost in pay of up to $25,000 during the pandemic.

But temporary pay boosts won't fix a problem that’s decades old, Tucker said.

"This will go on unless we do big fixes, like pay them a living wage, give them employee-sponsored health care, pay them for sick time, universal child care," she said. "We need to give people a way to go to work, afford to work, make their rent and groceries and make ends meet."

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pitched a program that would provide free college classes or a technical certificate to front-line workers without a higher-education degree.

Branche said Michigan should at least be talking about providing scholarships and grants for women and men who want to go back to school as adults.

"Other states do a great job of providing financial aid that is not loans for adults who want to go back to school, but Michigan is kind of lagging nationally in that," she said.

Desean Washington-Jones, 22, lost his two jobs as a cook at the Marriott Hotel in Pontiac and the Pine Lake Country Club on the same day in early March after Michigan started to see cases of COVID-19 rise. 

He sat at home for a month afterward, waiting for unemployment benefits. He had no savings and, like many others in Detroit, could not afford to have no money coming in.

With his last $100, he restarted his catering business, D Street Creations. He promotes what he’s cooking on social media, then sells individual dinner plates for pickup from his home or limited delivery. 

“Some people can’t stay home,” Washington-Jones said. “We don’t have the option to not do anything.”


Associated Press contributed