Essential workers need more than a parade
Why New York City's ticker-tape celebration rings hollow
It took no time at all for the insistence that "New York is back" to become a meme. Everything from fights among fans at Yankee Stadium to cockroach sightings to eavesdropping on strangers breaking up at a neighboring table has been cited as half-joking proof that the city — deemed a dying ghost town by President Donald Trump just nine months ago — is in fact very much alive.
Expressions of relief at the return of the city's slightly more acquired charms aren't only sarcastic; there is a genuine earnestness to enjoying, say, the sight of a scruffy subway rat after 12 or 13 months of avoiding public transportation out of fear. But during Wednesday's long-awaited ticker-tape parade in tribute to the city's "Hometown Heroes," the repeated pronouncements of the return of New York by the city organizers seemed to lack the sardonic self-awareness of the memes. The frontline workers the celebrations honored need far more than just confetti and applause, because, for all the reports that NYC is "back, baby," the effects of the pandemic, for many, haven't so simply gone away.
When New York first ground to a halt in the spring of 2020, it of course didn't really grind to a halt. Even as people like myself transitioned to working from home full time, only leaving our apartments for anxiety-laced trips to the grocery store, an entire web of essential workers kept the city functioning: the nurses and doctors who cared for the more than 100,000 people hospitalized in the city during the pandemic; the delivery people who materialized the packages of price-gouged toilet paper and hand sanitizer in apartment doorways; the immigrant workers, who didn't have the luxury of collecting unemployment or stimulus money in order to keep their families afloat; the transit employees, who took much of the brunt of exposure to the virus; and the teachers, who overnight had to adapt lesson plans to Zoom.
"Heroes" quickly became the term du jour for those who continued to put themselves at risk to keep the rest of us healthy or comfortable. But even last spring, shows of appreciation like the 7 p.m. clap were often more performative than backed up with meaningful support. "[T]he wartime rhetoric allows for things to seem like the deaths of health-care workers and the illnesses of health-care workers were inevitable, and unavoidable, when really we're being sacrificed by the refusal of the federal government to up its manufacturing of PPE," one Brooklyn nurse told Slate in April 2020, decrying the Trump administration's hesitancy to invoke the Defense Production Act to up the production of N95 masks. Similarly, workers in the restaurant industry criticized the lack of hazard pay and small business support. "Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren't heroes," one grocery store employee wrote in a much-read piece for The Atlantic. "They're victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation."
Still, the "tributes" continued. In addition to the 7 p.m. claps, there was a much-mocked military flyover in New York in April, which of course didn't better the situation for a single essential employee. The same month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intention to hold a ticker-tape parade in lower Manhattan's Canyon of Heroes — last done to celebrate the U.S. Women's World Cup champions — when the pandemic ended. "I want to guarantee you one thing," de Blasio said, perhaps under the delusion that he was lifting spirits. "When that day comes that we can restart the vibrant, beautiful life of this city again, the first thing we will do is we will have a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes for our health-care workers and our first responders."
While that day has finally come, the current celebration remains no more productive than the applause. Even as everyone from bodega workers to child care helpers were represented in the march, notably absent were the FDNY EMTs, who boycotted the event citing their unequal pay compared to the city's firefighters and police. Their absence speaks volumes; for many New Yorkers, it will be the ubiquitous sound of ambulance sirens in the spring of 2020 that remains the most chilling reminder of how one in every 500 of our neighbors died of COVID-19.
And though the parade was intended to mark the "end" of the pandemic, there will be no such convenient conclusion for many of the people supposedly being honored. Nearly 25 percent of health-care workers "likely" have PTSD, a survey by the Yale School of Medicine found, while some experts fear "transit workers will suffer from PTSD like 9/11 first responders" after a quarter of MTA employees caught COVID-19, and at least 131 died from it, The New York Daily News writes. In many other frontline professions as well, the reverberations the pandemic has on mental health could last years if not a lifetime.
The demands of essential workers are clear. "Federally mandated staffing ratios or other legislation for safe staffing needs to become law," Theresa Brown, a nurse, wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times this winter. She added, "We also need to find creative ways to bring more nurses into the workforce" — in order to protect health-care workers from being overworked — as well as ensure that nurses are "guaranteed mental health support, including paid time off, to treat their moral injury and possible PTSD." For delivery people, safer bike infrastructure and higher pay are also simple demands. And across all the frontline workplaces, protections like guaranteed sick leave are a bare minimum that should be offered. Instead, though, "the illusion that the institutions that employ us ever cared about us is shattered," Hunter Marshall, a traveling nurse (who, full disclosure, is also my cousin) told Brown.
Recognizing essential workers with a parade is great, so long as the appreciation doesn't stop with the pat on the back. But once the bands and the floats have cleared off Broadway, and the TV reporters and adoring unmasked crowds have gone home, no one will think about the people left behind to clean up the confetti.