The Dirty Secret of New York’s Coronavirus Response: Prison Labor

Thanks to the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, communities across the country are facing a shortage of hand sanitizer, wipes, and related products as people desperately try to stay ahead of an outbreak. In New York State, where the number of cases is steadily growing, the situation is especially serious: Governor Andrew Cuomo just declared a “containment area” in New Rochelle, just outside New York City. In the area, large gatherings are banned and the National Guard will be deployed.

On March 9, Cuomo announced a solution to one element of the supply problem in the wake of New York’s declared state of emergency: The state would start producing its own sanitizer, branded NYS Clean, to get around price gouging and supply issues. To start, 100,000 gallons a week will be distributed in government settings such as schools and prisons (more on that in a moment) as the state increases the speed of production. Cuomo even threatened to make the sanitizer available for commercial sale to counter price gougers, some of whom have already been fined for taking advantage of the public health emergency.

It’s the kind of bold statement designed to make a splash, but there’s little acknowledgement of who is responsible for making the product at speeds that allowed the state to ramp up production so quickly. The product is manufactured by Corcraft, which is the brand name for products produced by  the New York State prison system. “Employees” at Corcraft are incarcerated people making an average of $0.62 an hour.

Corcraft and entities like it across the nation benefit from a literally captive workforce. 50,000 people are incarcerated in New York’s state prisons, and while not all of them work for Corcraft, many do, producing things like license plates, desks, textiles, janitorial supplies, and even eyeglasses. These products are in turn sold to government agencies, educational institutions, first responders, and select nonprofits by Corcraft as a “preferred source.” These entities have to “look to Corcraft first” as a supplier, even if they’re opposed to the use of incarcerated labor.

Across the nation, incarcerated workers generate billions in revenue for the prison system, making pennies on the dollar and in some cases nothing at all for their work. While some might consider it slavery, it’s entirely legal under the 13th Amendment, which permits slavery or involuntary servitude “as punishment for a crime.” Nationwide, incarcerated people pave roads, maintain state parks, fight fires, grow crops, and manufacture scores of items.

Here’s a real bitter twist: According to Keri Blakinger and Beth Schwartzapfel at the Marshall Project, incarcerated people aren’t necessarily allowed to use hand sanitizer in jails and prisons. These workers are making a product they aren’t permitted to protect themselves with, even as conditions in jails and prisons can be extremely dirty, with even basic sanitation challenging. Sinks may be broken, sometimes no soap is provided so incarcerated people have to buy it from the commissary, and facilities are crowded.

Workers are making a product they aren’t permitted to protect themselves with

This is already a dangerous combination for the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis a — which is spread through unwashed hands — and influenza. Many prisoners are also trying to manage chronic illnesses like diabetes and HIV, which can make them vulnerable to infection. The response to concerns about infectious disease may be to “quarantine” sick people in isolation, an unhealthy and dangerous approach to controlling infectious disease that comes with significant mental health effects.

As New York’s Department of Corrections implements COVID-19 policies such as screening visitors, it repeats public health recommendations for “all individuals within its facilities” —  wash frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer when water is not available, keep your hands away from your face, and stay home when you are sick — all of which may be, to put it mildly, a challenge for incarcerated individuals.

Incarcerated people are commonly called upon to take personal safety risks for those who are not in jail or prison, as in the case of firefighters across the West who work alongside professionals in better gear, knowing that their training may not be transferrable to jobs on the outside thanks to their criminal records. Still, asking people to whip up 75 percent alcohol hand sanitizer for the health and safety of civilians while they’re struggling for scraps of soap in the midst of a public health emergency is truly a new low.

Access to tools to prevent the spread of disease and to protect people who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 — such as those living in institutions like jails and prisons — is vital. There’s ample guidance from experts on highly effective ways to protect ourselves, but people in carceral settings can’t access the basic things required, such as sanitation supplies and tissues so they can cover their mouths and noses when they sneeze or cough.

If there’s an outbreak in a prison setting (something that may be inevitable in a confined, unhealthy, unsanitary environment), it will be because of the refusal to make changes to the rules in order to allow people to protect themselves.


First Person

Coronavirus Is Spreading. Your Waiter Can’t Stay Home To Stop It.

Earlier this month, I contracted the flu — not COVID-19 but the regular, everyday, miserable but run of the mill flu that has been floating around my community.

I developed a severe case which turned into bacterial pneumonia; although otherwise fit and healthy, I have asthma, which makes me especially susceptible to respiratory illnesses. I spent Valentine’s Day flat on my back, wheezing and struggling to breathe while the antibiotics worked their magic.

Say what you will about azithromycin; it sure does kill bacteria good.

I work as a server, and I almost certainly contracted the flu from my workplace; prior to becoming sick, I served multiple customers who told me they were ill, which means exposure to their breath, used plates, napkins and cutlery, and surfaces they have touched. Moreover, several of my coworkers were ill with the same symptoms on the last shift I worked before becoming sick.

If you are worried about infection from COVID-19, you should be less concerned about hoarding masks and hand sanitizer (which you really shouldn’t be doing) and more concerned about the ways that poverty, a lack of access to health care, and general class inequality in North America could contribute to spreading it.

In Canada, where I live, servers are usually paid at or slightly below provincial minimum wage, and in the USA it’s often less than the already abysmal minimum wage. Most food service workers — servers, like myself, as well as cooks, bussers, and a vast variety of other folks working for an hourly wage — do not get paid sick days, which means taking time off even when you are pretty much dying costs you money.

Money you probably don’t have, which means you come into work sick.

For me, this was the first time in my 15-year career in the service industry that I have ever called in sick for multiple, back to back shifts. Tips are variable, but I estimate my three days off cost me about $350, plus $100 worth of medication. That doesn’t include the cost of my emergency room visit, which an uninsured American would also have to pay for.

I recovered faster because I got the medical care and rest I needed.

I’m really lucky that I work with good people and have a kind boss, who helped me cover my shifts; in many restaurants, the culture is not so forgiving, and calling in sick with anything less than a brain aneurysm is a sign of weakness. You’ve “screwed everyone over” by not coming in and making someone else work a double or else work shorthanded. In many other restaurants  I’ve worked in, you may find yourself missing shifts you would usually work on the next schedule — a “punishment” for the selfish act of allowing a virus to infiltrate your body and replicate within your cells, you lazy prick.

The main reason I was able to take a couple sick days this time around — regardless of the fact that I had to, since I couldn’t actually get out of bed — was that I have another job where I’m self-employed. In short, I had some extra money and could afford to not go to work and sweat and sneeze and cough all over people, food, and objects.

Not only does this mean I didn’t infect other people — COVID-19, incidentally, is primarily spread through respiratory droplets in the air, and by person to person contact — but I recovered faster because I got the medical care and rest I needed, which means I returned to work more quickly. Better for me, better for my boss, better for the health of everyone.

By contrast, as I recently tweeted about, this isn’t the first time I’ve had pneumonia; in 2013, I had walking pneumonia for two weeks, during which I worked the majority of the time handling food in close proximity to customers. I didn’t do that because I’m a selfish jerk unaware or unconcerned about the health of others, I did so because I wouldn’t make my rent if I took time off and because I was working in a place where I was afraid of what would happen if I called in.

Not only was I sick much longer in that case — and therefore capable of infecting others for a longer period of time — it took me months to fully recover, which had further economic impacts for me. I would have been a better worker, infected fewer people, and been less of a strain on the health system had someone just given me a goddamn paid sick day; it would have been cheaper and better for literally everyone in my community.

In 2017, 130 people were sickened by an outbreak of norovirus — a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness — which was directly linked to Chipotle’s management policies around sick workers. It’s not just about the policy, though; even if workers had been “allowed” to call in sick and supported by management to do so, they’re going to come into work if missing that shift means no gas in their car, or their kid doesn’t get lunch tomorrow, or it’s ramen for dinner every single day for the next week.

When you economically punish people for getting sick, more people are going to get sick.

All signs point to COVID-19 being a genuine pandemic that we should all be concerned about and thinking about — which means we need to care not only for ourselves, but for others. If you care about your health, care about how the people around you live and are treated in their everyday lives.

Viruses don’t care how much money their host makes, but how much money their host makes, and how we treat working-class people when they get sick, may impact how many opportunities COVID-19 has to spread.



First an Opioid Addiction. Then a Life-Altering Criminal Record.

America’s criminal justice system wasn’t designed for a drug epidemic on the scale of the opioid crisis. For four years I was at the epicenter in North Carolina, where as a small-town lawyer, the best I could often do was beg for probation in exchange for pleading my client to a low-level felony.

My job was to keep people out of jail, but I couldn’t control what kept bringing my clients back into the courtroom.

A common example was a young mother, caught with pills and charged with a felony for possession with intent to sell; loses her job because she couldn’t afford the bail set at $1,500; pleads guilty to the felony in return for probation so she can get out of jail; fails the drug tests on probation and ends up with the felony on her record; loses her driver’s license because of unpaid court costs and fines; and then her children because she cannot afford to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter.

I saw that every week: Someone who entered the courtroom an addict and exited a criminal. According to the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, more than 2 million people in the state have criminal records, 90 percent of large employers ask about that history, and more than 1,000 different laws in the state deny rights and privileges due to convictions.

And like in many states, it’s difficult to expunge those convictions because of long waiting periods and narrow rules of eligibility, which makes it hard for a person to find a decent job or stable housing, or obtain the education they want. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in 2014 the United States went without an estimated $78 to $87 billion in gross domestic product because of people who were unable to reenter society and participate in the workforce due to their criminal background. And that’s devastating for communities that were hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.

My hometown in the foothills of North Carolina was once the home of some of the largest manufacturing businesses, including the American Furniture Company. But slowly those jobs left town and went to China, or were lost to automation. From the year 2000, when that company finally closed, to 2014, my county experienced the second worst decline of median income in the United States: from $47,992 to $33,398.

And that’s when the pills came in. Doctors overprescribed Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet to people who were in pain and out of work. Many got hooked and some sold the painkillers on a black market out of their medicine cabinet. In 2007, the county experienced the third highest overdose rate in the country.

Because of a lack of funding at the state level, there’s no public defender’s office. So when I came home to work as a lawyer, I took appointed cases to supplement what I brought into our firm as a young criminal defense attorney. That meant representing as many as 15 clients a day and sometimes as many as 50 in a week. We’d be lucky to meet for more than a few minutes at a time to go over the facts before trial or to run through a plea offer while standing next to a bailiff in one of the holding cells behind the courtroom.

For every case disposed, I’d get appointed to another. Drugs were an underlying factor in almost every fact pattern.

Since 2013, the incarceration rate in rural America has risen by 26 percent.

My county wasn’t unique. The same forces of globalization and automation were devastating towns all across the country. But we didn’t discuss what was happening in those terms, and we didn’t learn about these deaths of despair by reading about them in The Atlantic. The stories were personal. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into the courtroom and see the faces of childhood friends, a young man from church, or even a next-door neighbor.

There’s a stereotype that the opioid crisis affects only middle-aged white men, but addiction doesn’t discriminate by age, race, or education level. Where there is discrimination, though, is in access to treatment. If you were from a rich household, or had a strong support system, your family could afford to send you to rehabilitation for as long as it took, up to a couple of years if need be. For everyone else, recovery options were limited and usually led back to the courtroom. (In North Carolina, programs like the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant spend more than $44 million per year on recovery services, but without Medicaid expansion, many in recovery are still on their own and unable to afford inpatient treatment.)

What happened in my town happened before, in the 1970s and the 1980s, when cities hollowed out and the response to a crack epidemic was mass incarceration. Now, because of organizers and advocates in those communities, the urban incarceration rate has declined in recent years. But because of the opioid crisis, since 2013, the incarceration rate in rural America has risen by 26 percent.

Today there is legislation in North Carolina called the Second Chance Act that would expand eligibility for record expungement. Hopefully, lawmakers will get that bill passed soon. What I saw in an Appalachian courtroom wasn’t because my hometown was full of bad people. It was because the factories closed and we treated poverty and addiction by locking up the victims.


First Person

I Broke My Tooth. It Almost Broke the Bank.

I was enjoying chips and salsa while out with friends when I felt a jolt in one of my back teeth. I ran my tongue over the area and realized I’d lost part of a tooth from a particularly hard tortilla chip.

“What’s wrong?” my friend asked.

“I think I just chipped my tooth.”

My other friend waved her hand at me. “Just go to the dentist.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable suggestion, but I didn’t have medical insurance, let alone dental: a whopping 33.6 percent of US adults don’t have dental coverage.

Not only did I not have dental insurance, but I hadn’t been to the dentist in more than a decade. My parents, who both had all their teeth pulled in their forties, had stopped taking me to the dentist when I was around ten. I assumed it was because of the cost. Even with dental insurance, most plans only cover one to two grand of dental work per year, with a deductible. This seems reasonable until you need something more than a cleaning, like a crown, which costs between $750 and $1200.

When I got back home, to the house that I lived in with six other people, I looked in the bathroom mirror and discovered a whole side of the tooth had come off, right down to the gum line. I didn’t want to get an infection, so I did a Google search for cheap dental care.

There was a college nearby with a teaching school, meaning that students worked on you while supervised. The only problem was that it required an initial interview and then a separate exam on a different day before they even started treatment. A car was a luxury that I couldn’t afford, and the trip to the dental school would take hours and multiple buses, not to mention unpaid time off of work.

The next best option was Superteeth, a dental clinic that advertised most basic dental services at $99. Fortunately, Superteeth was on a busy road easily accessible by one bus. A few days later, I headed to the clinic. It was hard to miss, as the outside of the building was covered with signs advertising cheap dentistry.

I walked in without an appointment and filled out some forms, crossing out the insurance section. After an hour, the dentist saw me and told me, without even doing an x-ray, that I needed a root canal.

“How much is that going to cost?”

“The procedure is between six and eight hundred dollars.”

Six hundred dollars was what I made in two weeks. I did not have that kind of money. Then she explained that it was just the cost of the root canal. I’d also need a crown, which would push the total past a thousand dollars and require multiple visits. I must have looked shocked, because she added that they could just pull the tooth for $99.

“Can I think about it and come back?” I asked.

“Sure, but don’t wait too long.”

I'd rather have a missing tooth that wasn't too noticeable than a rotting tooth.

For the next week, I smiled in front of mirrors and windows, trying to figure out if a missing tooth would be noticeable. The tooth was on my left side, third from the back. My biggest concern was how a missing tooth would affect my job prospects. In a list of common nonverbal mistakes made during job interviews, not smiling came in third, with 38 percent of hiring managers citing it as an issue. Smiling is hard when you’re self-conscious about your teeth. Sure, I could do a closed-mouth smile, but it doesn’t have the same effect on people.

In the end, I decided that I’d rather have a missing tooth that wasn’t too noticeable than a rotting tooth that could get infected and cause further, more expensive issues. Even if I could get my hands on a thousand dollars, I would have used it to pay down my credit card that was maxed out from college expenses instead.

When I got the courage to go back, the dentist asked for the $99 upfront. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I’d never had a tooth pulled before. My friends all had their wisdom teeth pulled and they were all knocked out for the procedure. This was not the case for pulling other teeth.

The dentist shot up my gums to numb them. She then grabbed what seemed to me like regular pliers that you would find in a hardware store. I was awake as she clamped down on the tooth and used all her strength to yank it out.

I was expecting something more surgical and less brutal. I heard the tooth shatter and then the sounds of the dentist scraping the area.

“I think I got all the bone fragments out, but it’s hard to tell. You might have some bone fragments come through the gums in the next few weeks. You can just pull them out yourself or you can come back and we can do it.”

She didn’t mention if it would cost me or not to come back. I didn’t ask, because I knew I’d just go the DIY route. She told me not to drink from straws, as this could cause the blood clot to dislodge, and then sent me on my way without so much as a Tylenol.

I was planning to take the bus home but called my sister for a ride instead. I didn’t want to scare strangers with my bloody gauze and slack mouth. A day later, I was back at work, as I didn’t have vacation days and was now out $99.

I remembered the dentist telling me to “get back in for an exam soon.” She looked concerned. I was having pain in other teeth and was using copious amounts of Orajel to deal with it.

I landed a job with better pay and benefits a few months later. As soon as my dental insurance kicked in, I made an appointment. I had 16 cavities and had to get them filled four at a time over four sessions. As I’d just started work three months earlier, I still didn’t have the money to pay all the out-of-pocket costs and ended up putting some of the expenses on a high-interest credit card.

My dentist kept pushing me to get a dental implant. He warned me of gum loss that could disfigure my face. He also told me my teeth would shift to fill in the gap, causing my bite to change. He did a thorough job of scaring me, but I didn’t have the $2400 to cover the out-of-pocket costs.

A few years and a few raises later, I was able to get the dental implant. I had been experiencing TMJ jaw pain due to the shifting teeth that got so bad that I went to the dentist to make sure I didn’t have an infection.

Like getting the tooth pulled, I was awake for the whole implant procedure. The dentist drilled into my gums, placed a metal screw in the hole, and stitched my gums back up around it. It would be a couple of months before the gums were healed enough to place the fake tooth on top of the screw. Again, I was thankful that the tooth was in the back. A missing tooth was one thing, but a screw sticking out of the gums was quite another.

Years have gone by and the fake tooth still gives me issues. Because I waited too long, I lost a lot of gum tissue and the fake tooth doesn’t fill the space well. Food gets stuck underneath the tooth and when I run the floss all the way under, I sometimes cut the gums. This leads to bleeding, puffiness, and a few days of pain. Once, it led to an infection.

The implant troubles are a constant reminder of how lucky I was to find a job in time, before I — like my parents — lost all my natural teeth. Not everyone is as fortunate.



New York’s Salon Workers Are Fighting For Better Conditions—And Winning

Glenda Sefla got a job in a nail salon in New York City when she first arrived from her home country of Ecuador because it was the first option she could find to make some money. But from the very beginning she knew something was wrong. “The conditions were really bad,” she told me, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. One of those conditions was wage theft. She was working 10-hour days but making just $30 a day. That amounted to a mere $3 an hour, even though her wages and tips were supposed to come to at least $8 an hour.

That small amount of money didn’t cover her bills and expenses. “So then I just ended up working more,” she explained. She would work six or even seven days a week just to try to make ends meet. “I would just go to sleep and then go to work and then go to sleep and go to work,” she said. She spent three years putting in those kinds of hours. “I felt totally exhausted, physically and mentally.”

She eventually started working in a different salon in Manhattan where she made slightly more: $50-60 a day for the same hours. It still wasn’t enough to cover her bills. She had to eat “the most basic things,” always at home because she couldn’t afford to eat a meal out. She couldn’t buy herself anything, not even new clothes. “I couldn’t take care of my physical and mental health,” she said.

“You’re working so hard, but at the end of the week you still don’t have enough,” she added. “It makes it impossible to imagine a dignified life.”

Meanwhile, the salon owners never gave her and her coworkers information about how to protect their health and safety when working with chemicals everyday. Salon workers are routinely exposed to the “toxic trio” of formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate, common nail polish ingredients, as well as disinfectants such as alcohol. Exposure can lead to skin irritation and chronic conditions, allergies, and even reproductive problems.

Sefla didn’t realize that she had the right to more pay and better protection until she found the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, which organizes nail salon workers in the state around wages and working conditions. She’s now an organizer there.

“This wasn’t just something that was just happening to me,” she noted. For all of her compañeras in the industry, “This is the reality that we’re living.”

Low prices translate into illegal poverty wages.

A new report backs her up. In a survey of about 100 nail salon workers in New York City and surrounding counties, the New York Nail Salon Workers Association found that 82 percent experienced wage theft. Employers are failing to pay the state’s tipped minimum wage, aren’t making up the difference when employees’ base wages and tips don’t add up to the full minimum wage, and don’t pay extra for overtime work. The hours are long: nearly two-thirds of nail salon employees say they work shifts that are at least 10 hours. But many aren’t paid time and a half for the extra hours they put in.

That wage theft is costing them, on average, more than $180 a week, or over $9,000 a year—steep sums for the majority immigrant female workers who survive off of little pay to begin with. More than 10 percent of respondents were losing more than $400 a week.

One source of the problem, the report finds, can be traced back to how little it costs to get a manicure in New York. Workers at salons that charge the lowest prices—$9 or less for a manicure—reported experiencing higher rates of wage theft and losing more money, while those at salons that charged at least $16 for a manicure kept more of the money they were due. “Low prices translate into illegal poverty wages,” the report states. But “as service prices increase, wage theft decreases.”

On top of the inadequate pay, the report also found that 86 percent of nail salon workers in New York City aren’t being given paid sick days, as is the law.

In 2015, a New York Times expose shone a light on the rampant mistreatment of nail salon employees in the city, who are often forced to work extremely long hours in harsh conditions for little pay. In its wake, the state implemented health and safety standards dealing with ventilation and protective equipment. It also now requires owners to take financial steps to ensure that workers can recover wages if it’s found they’re being underpaid and created a voluntary recognition process for those deploying best practices. But workers argue that even with some protections in place, they need stronger enforcement to get what they’re due. “While the legislation provided new protections for workers and regulations for employers, workers continue to organize to make those protections a reality,” the report notes.

“We still aren’t really seeing changes,” Sefla said. “We have established better laws, but we’re seeing that a lot of the owners are not complying with the new laws. So we haven’t seen the change that we’re looking for.”

In December, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would get phase out the tipped minimum wage for a group of workers that includes nail salon employees (although excluded restaurant and hospitality workers), meaning salon owners will be required to pay the full minimum wage regardless of how much customers tip. But as the report notes, many workers weren’t even being paid the lower tipped wage to begin with. So they’re demanding more legislative action.

“We need mechanisms for enforcing those established laws,” Sefla said. “There won’t be any change without consequences and accountability.”

The heart of their demand is that the state legislature pass the Nail Salon Accountability Act, which will be introduced later this month. The law would change the licensing process so that workers’ feedback would be incorporated into the renewal process and owners would have to get certification proving that they are complying with labor, health, and safety laws. It would also mandate training for owners and workers on those laws. “Compliance with the law must become part of the cost of doing business,” the report states.

There are other potential legislative fixes in the works as well. Members of the assembly are considering a bill that would criminalize wage theft. The New York City council is working on a bill that would give salon owners subsidies so they could add proper ventilation.

“Esos son básicos,” Sefla said: These are basic things. “Son derechos que tenemos aquí en este país.” These are rights we have here in this country.