Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

October 31st, 2012 3:48 PM

Dead Woman Working: Fear in Every Storm

Working people in America have so much more to fear than brutal weather conditions when horrible storms like Hurricane Sandy (aka, tropical cyclone Sandy or super storm Sandy) come into our lives. Of course we fear the physical threats that the news and weather stations forecast. But we also fear so very much more. And in the aftermath of the historic “Frankenstorm” that just hit all of us on the East Coast, working people continue to be afraid of economic and personal harm that is still unfolding.

Facing natural disaster is a part of life. My childhood memories of living in suburban Chicago include tornadoes, ice storms, power outages, and occasional flooding of our basement.  As an adult, I was pretty fortunate not to face many weather disasters until my children were older. I lived in Kendall, Florida, when Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida, and thought I would never again see anything as devastating. The sounds from that night more than 20 years ago and the images of the debris burn piles still haunt me at times.

Later, my husband and I survived a wildfire that forced us to be evacuated from our home in Deadwood, South Dakota, and the mudslides afterwards did terrible damage all around us.  After the Grizzly Gulch fire erupted on the hillside across from our home, we were given less than five minutes to gather what we could and get out.  Shaking and gagging with upset, I took photos along the road on the way out since I was on-call as a reporter for the newspaper that weekend,  and it turned out my photos were among the earliest taken of the fire’s beginning moments.  It would eventually burn more than 10,000 acres in the Black Hills.

While still sheltered in a Red Cross evacuation center in Spearfish, SD, my husband, Larry, got word that he was expected to be back at work as a casino cashier in Deadwood.  He had no work clothes and his gaming license (required of all casino employees) was back at our house.  It was made clear to the employees that if they did not return for their shifts, they probably would not have jobs.  We smelled like fire.  It was pretty awful.  But the casinos closed only briefly during the worst of the fire as slurry planes flew overhead, and casinos were the first businesses to reopen as they were the economic engines of the community.  When any insurance settlement money came later, the casinos were first in line to claim their economic damages and working people received none of that relief.  Workers, though, were certainly expected to mitigate the damages for their employers.

We've seen lots of other blizzards, hail damage, and other big storms like most people have.  And this week and every week since I began working more than 40 years ago, I have feared more the wrath of economic trauma than almost anything else once a storm’s most intense natural threat has passed. Like most working people, I worry about lost work time and income, lost personal property that an insurance policy doesn't cover, and how not to be viewed as weak, lazy or uncommitted if I am unable to overcome natural catastrophe that is out of my control.

I chatted with a store clerk this morning who told me about her friend and neighbor who was required to go in for her shift at Wal-Mart this week during one of the worst times of the storm as Sandy passed through Maryland.  Though our governor issued orders for folks not to travel on the state’s roads, workers sometimes cannot heed those orders unless they are willing to lose their jobs.  This worker drove on deserted highways, terrified and worried about leaving her kids behind at home.  I always wonder why employers who force employees to put themselves at risk during awful storms aren’t held accountable for that.

So as I look at pictures and hear reports about New York and New Jersey this morning, I am mindful not only of the devastation of homes and businesses in the area, but also of the financial, emotional, and psychological stress for working class people. Even as the storm was bearing down, the worries began. Going to work, staying at work, getting back to work, doing work from home, keeping Internet connections, keeping cell phones charged for work purposes, expectations of bosses, and many other issues must be weighed along with physical threat, wind speed, barometric pressure, and emergency declarations by government officials. In many cases in spite of governors’ orders to stay off the roads and in spite of truly frightening and life-threatening weather conditions, businesses do not close and employees are left trying to decide whether to risk life and limb to get to work or risk life and limb losing income needed to support themselves that will be lost when they cannot get to work at a business that remains open.

 We all marvel at the public safety and health professionals, like so many nurses, who stay on the job to keep the rest of us safe and well.  Taking on that sort of personal risk as a part of your job every day is a gift to all of us. But it seems many bosses believe all workers should be willing to take those same risks regardless of what they sell or provide.

During the storm, survival seems important.  Immediately following the storm, the worries about work race back to the forefront. The financial worries escalate. Lost time from work is rarely compensated. The money spent in preparation for a storm is gone for good no matter how much loss it may or may not have spared. Food may have spoiled during a power outage. Getting back into a normal routine may take days or weeks. The losses for working people are often much greater than those of wealthier people who have comprehensive insurance coverage for most of life's storms.

People from other parts of the country and other parts of the world often donate to large charitable organizations to help with storm relief, and that's OK.  But I often wonder how many people take the time to ask working-class people and their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities, if they could use some assistance in replacing uncompensated storm losses.

I suspect most people not directly impacted by the storm think immediate survival is the only thing to worry about. And I know that even during those catastrophes when my family desperately needed help, we only received any direct support a couple of times from disaster aid organizations. Often the losses were in the thousands while the help was less than $100.  Other times, help we needed came directly from government agencies.

No one could help long-term damage done to our working lives unless they could force an infusion of compassion and generosity of spirit that is largely absent in the wealthy and powerful classes that own and run many businesses and organizations.  So, what to do to help folks?  Well, if you can donate, that’s great.  If you can reach out to someone you know personally and help directly, that’s really great.  If you have control over the livelihoods of others, perhaps you could acknowledge that you know it’s a rough time, you could look for ways to ease the pain, and you won’t add to the problems for your employees.  That would be storm relief.

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