These perspectives are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers. All data referenced can be independently verified on the state’s data portal here unless otherwise noted. This is the first in a series of posts about my experiences working during the pandemic.
I’ve worked in the library field since 2013. Before the pandemic there were certainly times when management displayed a lack of serious regard for our safety. A couple of times it involved library patrons becoming threatening with me, but the most routine example was the overwhelming reluctance to close due to inclement weather. One day during a snow storm I called the union president at my last library gig about whether or not she was going to tell our executive director we should close early. She stated flatly she would not, and suggested I dig into my personal time if I felt unsafe driving home later on in the day.
It was a sign of things to come. While the story of my time at the New Britain Public Library is one that will have to wait, the headline involves our boss Pat Rutkowski delivering two back-to-back tirades to captive audience staff meetings in June 2020, threatening that if we continued to voice our concerns about her reckless reopening policies, we were unwelcome in continuing our employment there; a sentiment echoed by my boss at my other job at Real Art Ways, Will Wilkins, the day before he fired me. Even our scab union rep. Julius Preston of the Connecticut State Employees Association/SEIU Local 2001 said I should look for employment elsewhere rather than pressing the issue.
My time at the Hartford Public Library has been a welcome change of pace. In fact when I was still at NBPL I took the copy of HPL’s Pandemic Service Restoration Handbook I requested to the NBPL Health and Safety Committee in the hopes of mitigating the heightened risks we were bearing just two towns over. I interviewed for a job at HPL just days before the state shutdown in 2020, and leapt at the chance when I got a call back the following year.
HPL has been pretty consistent about its mask requirements, for all but two weeks in the Summer of 2021 when even my hopes were high. Unfortunately for all of us, the person at the top of the municipal government has been anything but dependable. Luke Bronin waited until the Delta wave was in full swing over the Summer before picking up Ned Lamont’s (election season-inspired) slack, and instituted a mask mandate for Hartford. Prior to the flattening of the Delta wave (which was made possible by more municipalities instituting their own mask mandates) dozens more Hartford residents died deaths that were entirely preventable with basic public health measures like indoor masking.
The numbers of people hospitalized with COVID in the County of Hartford went from single digits in early July, to steadily climbing upward to over a hundred on any given day by mid-August. Around that time the municipal government re-instituted the indoor mask mandate, and between September and Thanksgiving those figures went up and down between 49 and 85 hospitalized people on any given day. Then, after three major holidays with no indoor mask mandate (revoked on November 8th) we skyrocketed to 555 hospitalizations in Hartford County on January 19th. In February it’s come back down to just over 200 (half of whom are fully vaccinated, see highlighted fine print in the Daily Summary below) right back to where we were a year ago. The City of Hartford’s official death toll today stands at 385 people, up from 299 on July 1st 2021.
But according to city council member Josh Michtom, Bronin is opposed to anything that will make it less likely for suburbanites to spend money in Hartford’s restaurant industry. In fact, Bronin even told him masks don’t work and are merely theater. Stunned, I suggested to Michtom he shouldn’t let his boss off the hook for such wanton disregard for human life, but ultimately the Working Families Party is nothing more than a token to give Hartford workers the false impression that they have a seat at the table.
In spite of HPL management’s best efforts, their de facto bosses in municipal government are effectively making all of our jobs harder, more stressful and less safe. Our underpaid security guards and other staff are put in the position of enforcing an important and reasonable rule that government officials are undermining by signaling to the public that masks are trivial in spite of overwhelming evidence that they are a critical component of a larger strategy. The astronomical (and predictable) rise in cases during the ongoing Omicron wave resulted in many HPL staff being infected. Around the new year I (vaccinated and boosted) was among them for the first time when I became infected at work, prior to the rollout of the high grade medical masks necessary to protect against the Omicron variant. But even with N95s, sky-high community transmission caused by relaxed precautions and inconsistent advisories puts all of us at an unnecessarily heightened risk, especially those of us who serve the public face-to-face.
The business class has buried many common sense remedies to our public health crisis under mountains of easily refuted propaganda, one of which is that each state, each municipality, each business and each individual can decide their own level of responsibility to public health: the library, city hall next door, the deli on the opposite corner and the school down the street can all have different rules for the same virus. In an alternate reality, where we all had the same access to healthcare, childcare and career opportunities, such an approach could theoretically be considered innocuous enough, if counterintuitive. But in reality us “heroes” on the frontline do not assume the same risks as the people making life-and-death decisions on our behalf, because the consequences for serious illness are objectively not the same. When policymakers shirk the responsibility of their office by passing the buck to “personal responsibility” narratives, it predictably yields the very same results as when they’re applied to combating drug abuse, sexually transmitted infections and structural inequality–catastrophic failure.
In a state like Connecticut, where you can find inequality that rivals any other point on the globe, the kind of logic and impunity that permits our leaders to put the profit margins of suburbanite restaurant owners ahead of their own flesh-and-blood workers is only too familiar. It was for that very reason that Connecticut rose to one of the highest rates of unionization in the country, because we understand that only our collective voice can bring us closer to acceptable conditions of employment. It is that voice, our unions, that must put the political class on notice that we will not allow them to play games with our lives. I’ve encountered a great deal of cynicism about the union since starting at HPL, but I can say from experience that when it comes to the people leading it, we could do a hell of a lot worse, and I trust that if the membership speaks they will listen.