clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

These images show the workers who were always “essential”

The people keeping New York City from falling apart are still on the city’s streets and trains. Will the pandemic change how they are treated?

MTA train conductor. M line Brooklyn NY.

The subway is New York’s lifeline. It’s what connects us to work and school and family dinners and late-night celebrations; it’s what ties Coney Island to Yankee Stadium, the ponds of Central Park to the boardwalks of the Rockaways. For $2.75, New Yorkers can get to just about every nook and cranny of the five boroughs, though there are some exceptions. The city’s buses and subways are just as essential as the people who are still riding them right now, in the middle of one of the most devastating crises the city has ever weathered.

While the city’s transit system looks different these days — ridership is down 90 percent from this time last year, as millions of people now work from home or are unemployed — there are still millions of New Yorkers who never stopped commuting to work. Photographer Jorge Garcia captured these workers riding the trains and traversing the streets in late April, as the rest of the city had been sheltering in place for more than a month. They’re the doctors and nurses and hospital support staff helping dozens of sick people a shift. They’re the subway conductors and bus drivers making sure these people get to their jobs, and the MTA workers who keep the tracks clean and schedules reliable. They’re the grocery store employees who ensure shelves are stocked with bags of rice and cans of beans, the government employees who process applications for benefits, and the undocumented New Yorkers who were excluded from the stimulus bill. They are, overwhelmingly, working-class people of color.

Millions of New Yorkers are putting their lives on the line every day by going to work, not necessarily because they want to but because they have to. Sometimes the train cars are eerily deserted, save for a few masked faces staring at their shoes. Other times, especially during rush hour, there are still plenty of bodies standing and sitting side by side, turning what would otherwise be a normal trip to work into a health hazard. Their commutes haven’t necessarily changed, but the stakes have.

No longer sandwiched between bankers and office workers, the millions of people whose labor the city has always relied on are more visible than ever. At the same time, as the majority of the city’s residents shelter in place — either in their apartments or, for some, their Hamptons or country houses — it’s never been easier to look away. It’s also never been more critical not to.

Step off the train, up the stairs being cleaned by an MTA worker, out into the moody spring weather, and the city looks almost apocalyptic. There are pedestrians in masks and harried parents running errands, trying to get back home as quickly as possible. There are also plenty of people doing their jobs: bike messengers making Postmates deliveries, doormen opening doors for tenants so they don’t have to touch germy handles. People toiling away so the city can keep running, so people sheltering in place can feel comfortable, so things don’t fall apart more than they already have.

There’s this notion that we’re all in this together, that we’re all shouldering responsibility in our own ways. Under that logic, many New Yorkers are staying indoors; the essential workers, that 10 percent of commuters who must still go to work every day, are continuing to show up. Politicians and public service announcements refer to them in ominously militaristic terms. The virus is a foreign enemy and the essential workers are the troops. And therefore, the logic goes, their sacrifice is not only noble but expected.

It’s true that the least those of us lucky enough to work from home can do is stay where we are. It’s true that by staying home, we’re doing what we can do to protect those who can’t. But the sacrifices we’re making are by no means equal. New York’s essential workers — mail carriers and gig economy couriers, janitors and cashiers, nursing assistants and hospital clerks — are being asked to put themselves at risk. We’re being asked to sit back and let them.

More than 2,400 MTA workers have tested positive for Covid-19 so far; at least 68 have died. Grocery store workers are dying, too. So are doctors, nurses, and other health care workers. A map of Covid-19 cases by zip code shows that the virus has somehow avoided most of Manhattan, as well as the wealthier — and whiter — parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Meanwhile, black and Latino New Yorkers are dying at twice the rate of their white counterparts. The same people who are being asked to keep showing up to work today are getting sick, and they’re largely working-class people of color. They are risking their health, their families’ health, to hold the city together. They aren’t making a noble sacrifice; they’re working so they can keep paying rent in a city that gets more expensive by the day.

When this is all over, things can’t go back to the way they were before. Acknowledging the sacrifices made by essential workers isn’t enough. It’s easier to lionize vulnerable people than it is to protect them. It’s one thing to thank essential workers for their sacrifice — it’s another to pay them fairly for their work, ensure they can afford housing and health care, and build a city where all New Yorkers are cared for. And to do that, we need to address the root causes of the inequality that has caused this virus to disproportionately affect people who were already struggling. We can’t pretend accolades are a substitute for equity.

Jorge Garcia is an independent New York City-based photographer and founder of the NYC Street Photography Collective. He spends most of his time wandering sidewalks looking for interesting spontaneous moments. These photos were taken April 20 to 28, around parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Gaby de Valle is a freelance reporter who primarily covers immigration and labor. Her work has appeared in Vox, the Nation, the Baffler, and other publications. She’s the co-founder of Border/Lines, a weekly newsletter about immigration policy.


9 ocean mysteries scientists haven’t solved yet

Down to Earth

Scientists will unleash an army of crabs to help save Florida’s dying reef


Is America uniquely vulnerable to tyranny?

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.