Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this conversation, Hector Amaya (professor of communication, director of the School of Communication; associate dean of diversity, inclusion, equity and access, USC Annenberg) spoke with Clare McGranahan (associate director of communications), discussing the exploitation of essential workers in the United States during the pandemic.

Clare McGranahan (CM): You selected a photograph of a grocery store clerk. Why did you choose this image to submit to the Time Capsule for Future Researchers?

Photo credit: Sarah Gonzalez/NPR

Hector Amaya (HA): When Covid-19 began, it upended many of our lives by forcing us to work from home and to make the compromises and sacrifices that came with that, but that kept us safe. And yet, for the majority of Americans, that was not an option. I remember early in March, when California shut down, going to the grocery store and feeling actual pain for those helping me shop. I was doing everything I could to stay safe—I was minimizing my chances of contagion, I was reducing my number of interactions. And they went through hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions daily.

The grocery store clerk, to me, was emblematic of the person who I saw being exposed the most, while at the same time being in a job, and in an economic situation, that has been typically seen as unimportant. They certainly don’t have the economic rewards of other essential workers, or the prestige rewards. Being a nurse has always been prestigious. Being a firefighter has always been prestigious. But we don’t think of grocery clerks in that way.

And so I chose that image because of what the experience of going to the grocery store meant to me when it was early on in the pandemic, but also because it really allowed me to see a lot of the contradictions that we as a society have been willing to embrace during the last year.

CM: Could you talk a bit more about those contradictions?  

HA: For me, it’s both the economic aspect and the prestige, because it’s not only about economics, but about respect. In California, we have tried to push grocery stores to increase the wages of supermarket workers, and these policies have often been referred to as “Hero Pay.” And I think it’s wonderful that we call it that. But what is sad is that we only see it that way right now.

Different cities and counties have tried to implement hero pay in California, but we have grocery stores balking at the request. Perhaps the most recent case in California was that Kroger closed two stores in Long Beach when the city asked them to raise the wages of their workers by $4.00 while Covid-19 was going on. The CEO of Kroger has come out declaring that he will push back against city councils and state legislators dictating the pay that he should be giving.

But in an interview with the CEO that I saw after this happened in Long Beach, he also declared the ways in which Covid-19 has been a huge bonanza for Kroger. And in the interview there was no pushback, there was no bringing to the fore the huge contradiction of saying, “We cannot afford to do this for our workers, even though we are raking in a record amount of revenue.”  

So it is these types of contradictions that actually are very, very startling to me. The notion of the essential worker should bring attention to categories of workers that are always essential. What is the “essence” of society? Food workers, supermarket workers, people working in meat processing plants, people working in the fields trying to put fresh produce in front of us. That we now choose to brand them as “essential” so that we, the rest of us, can have their sacrifice and the product of their labor, seems to me rather manipulative, because these same industries are famously unprotected by our labor laws. In fact, these populations are the ones that always sacrifice themselves the most for us. And right now, we call them essential so that they can continue working for us. So it is, for me, one of the harshest examples of the way that we are using the discourse of Covid-19 to continue exploitation.

CM: Are you hopeful that Covid-19 will bring new visibility and recognition that these jobs really are essential to keep society running, whether there’s a pandemic or not?  

HA: No, I’m not. I’m not because they have always been essential. And the only reason we are classifying them as such right now is so that we can ask them to work—we can actually force them to work. I think this is one of the most brutal things that we are doing. There is a lot of national outrage at the fact that this is so, but I fear that even that outrage will go away once Covid-19 subsides or is more under control.

We are so forgetful of the fact that the human infrastructure of our society is what keeps the structure of society working. The infra has always been hidden, hasn’t it? The human infrastructure of our society is the most exploited. I’m in California; the majority of these workers are Latino or Black. In general, in California, we have had movements to protect our agricultural workers. The way that Latinos define our civil rights movement is about farm workers. We have meat processing plants all around the nation that are populated mostly by Latinos. There have been huge outbreaks among these meat processing plants. All of these workers are always our infrastructure, so that the rest of us can function, can exist, can survive. These workers don’t have social prestige, cultural prestige, political prestige, or economic benefits to their labor. Right now they are not infra, they are visible to us. But the infra will go back to being infra. It’s almost like the Morlocks, from H. G. Wells, the ones living under the city. They are the infra people. There is a famous cover of The Invisible Man with a Gordon Parks photograph of a Black man coming out of a sewer cap onto the street. The human infrastructure of society, the invisible people—we have always exploited them highly efficiently. 

CM: What do you hope that future researchers will take from this image?

HA: I hope that the future will take us to task as to whether more of us make an effort to make these communities and populations visible in the political, social, and cultural realms, in a way that recognizes their proper rights as human beings.

I hope that we recognize the fact that their work is always essential, and if something is essential that means it is important, and if it’s important, it should be treated as such, with respect. 

Instead, what we have are workers being harassed by customers who are not willing to wear their masks, and things like that. Covid-19 has brought out a lot of the worst things that we are as a society, including the fact that we put these workers in the front line of a fight that is meant to keep people like us alive.

In a study of employees at a grocery store in Massachusetts, more than 20 percent were diagnosed with Covid-19. Workers who interacted with customers were five times as likely to be infected. I hope that we are taken to task for that reason. I hope that actually the future will shame us properly for the fact that even after Covid-19 we continue exploiting all these populations without remorse. Because that’s what we were doing 14 months ago, and that’s what we may go back to doing 14 months from now.

When I think about the notion of the essential workers we are using during Covid-19, and the way in which we have typically treated different categories of workers in the US, and most places in the West— people who actually are able to do white collar work, people who can work from home, people who have degrees, people who have economic rewards associated their work—we have all these industries of prestige that support their privilege. And we reproduce their privilege through our stories. How many more TV shows do we need about doctors or lawyers? Professors are not as common, but in general, when we are present in narratives, we have prestige associated with us.

When we tell stories about groups of workers, we never go to the grocery clerk. They are hidden not only in our conversations, they are also hidden in our imaginations. And they are hidden in our policies, because they are exploitable. They are the ones that actually are affected the most by the de-unionization of the United States.

What is interesting about our economic and political system is that the most privileged class—for centuries now—is one with the state. Today I’m actually teaching Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. Reading Black Marxism while thinking about essential workers reminds me of all the ways in which these categories of exploited people have always been essential to the rise of the modern nation state. The capitalism we recognize today has never been a capitalism of opportunity. It has always relied on, first of all, slave classes. The current version of slavery includes these human infrastructures, in the US, at least. So people like me who live with the benefits of the economic and prestige industries associated with the modern nation state, we manage to reproduce our privilege again and again, to the harm of others.

This interview was conducted on February 16, 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.