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'We are fighting for survival:' Black essential workers head to the ballot box

Work deemed "essential" during the pandemic has largely been faced by people of color. So how will their experiences of 2020 affect their votes?
Image: A group of essential workers (postal worker, nurse, food service worker) hold up a pen to mark a ballot.
Olivia Fields / for NBC News

Tamaira Johnson, a registered nurse, saw the rise in anxiety and danger at work that came with the increase in cases of the coronavirus at her hospital near San Diego. But Johnson, the clinical supervisor of more than 65 workers, plowed on in the face of immense uncertainty.

"It felt like being in the eye of the storm," Johnson said. "The tensions across the hospital dialed up significantly. Doctors and nurses were all on edge as they were constantly aware of the potential of exposure to the airborne disease. Getting a firsthand glimpse of how gravely ill the patients could become was disturbing and heart-wrenching. The fragility of their health meant they could require resuscitation at any time, and many of them did at the same exact time. The overlap of the unstable patients declining in a synchronized fashion was overwhelming."

Johnson's work in health care was always important, but in 2020, it was deemed critically essential. In a different way, so was the work of Fulton County Sheriff's Capt. Damien Butler in Atlanta.

"With law enforcement, we run toward danger when others run away," Butler said.

Butler said he's been trapped in a quandary this year: working during the pandemic and managing the social justice protests prompted by the death of George Floyd, who died in an encounter with police in Minneapolis.

"With the protests, they were hard to watch," he said. "Being in the profession, you don't like being looked at in a negative light. We don't like the bad apples that are out there. It makes it harder for those who want to make change, make the community better."

Johnson and Butler are among many Black essential workers in America who plied their trade during the pandemic and the social justice demonstrations. They said the events will play strongly in their decisions on how they will vote in the presidential election.

Johnson said tensions around political views or preconceived notions about race can run high in a health care setting.

"A patient has even asked for white nurses only to attend to him," she said. "Unfortunately, this election has just emboldened people's negative ideas and comments even more than the past."

Still, Johnson said, she's "disappointed with the messaging around the pandemic response."

"It has been chaotic and inconsistent," she said. "Public health has become politicized. But the diligent work of the health care workers must go on."

She said that she does not want to disclose whom she chose but that as a Black woman and someone who has been on the front lines, those issues "are foremost in my thoughts when it comes time to vote."

Ed Hughes of Northern Virginia, a long-distance freight driver, said working during the pandemic and the social justice fight has crystallized the importance of voting on character.

"My vote went to the person who is honest," Hughes said. He said he voted early for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. "Even if he doesn't accomplish what he set out to do, he will have tried, been sincere. That's who I can work with. I can't work with a person who says what he will do and didn't mean it, didn't even try."

Hughes said too much is at stake not to vote for Biden. "There are certain people in the country putting their lives on the line by going to work during a pandemic. There are people protesting, saying they aren't going to take it anymore. As Black people, we are fighting for survival. We can't let one side tear it down for the other. So do we build a bridge to walk over the creek? Or do we try to walk through the creek, not knowing how deep it is? We need a person who will build a bridge so we can all cross it."

While the economic fallout from the pandemic has been widespread, the burden "has not been borne evenly," according to a Brookings Institute report released last month.

"Low-income workers, nonwhite workers, workers with less educational attainment and workers in the service industry are all less likely to be able to work from home than their peers," the report said.

People whose work is considered "essential" have also been "instrumental in keeping the economy running," it said.

But most do not have union support, meaning their risk of contracting the coronavirus is higher because they have minimal power and voice in the workplace about when and whether they report to work. The report also pointed out that just 1 in 10 essential workers is supported by a union.

"I worked during the pandemic because I had to work," said Dee Moore, a cashier at a fast food restaurant in Houston.

"I'm not bitter, but I don't even like talking about it. Bottom line: If I don't work, I don't eat right now. So I work, even though coming to work could ... could kill me — or at least make me sick.

"So when I hear 'essential,' I think, 'Essential for who?' Definitely not for me," Moore added. "Thank God I am OK — so far. And when I think about my vote, it's not going to the person who got us in this mess and who made it worse by not following the science."

He said he voted for Biden "with the quickness."

Butler, the sheriff's captain, said working during the pandemic has put him in front of angry groups of people with a singular idea about law enforcement.

"They see the uniform, not the person," he said. "We had to work the protest, and it was something I didn't want to do, because I understand their anger. I'm with them. But I wear a uniform. So I have been called all the names you can think of, from 'Uncle Tom' to 'House N-word.' I understand their anger. It's not easy to see officers consistently harming unarmed Black men. I don't condone that."

Because he works for an elected official, Butler said, he cannot share his voting preference. But he said his approach to choosing a candidate this year is the same as previous presidential elections, but the issues are different.

"I look at the platforms of the candidates," he said. "Usually, it's about foreign policy or jobs, the economy. A pandemic and police reform usually aren't issues to consider, but they are this year. Those are big on my list. And I stand with that candidate that is committed to making changes."

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Robert Treadwell, a postal worker in Connecticut since 1998, said that he has been perturbed that the Postal Service's ability to handle mail-in ballots has been questioned and that it has swayed his voting position.

"Politically, they are talking about trying to privatize the post office," Treadwell said. "Why? We've done the job well forever, and we've served Black families and small businesses and big corporations. So when you take a position on changing something for no good reason, when we have been there working every day during a pandemic, it concerns me.

"Voting is very personal. I have been an essential worker, doing a job and really a service when most of the country was working from home. That's the job, but it should count for something more. Instead, it has been minimized by certain parties. I won't forget that when it comes time to vote."