Friars Reflect on Labor Day During a Pandemic

Stephen Mangione Features

This year, during a time of pandemic, the Labor Day holiday took on a more profound meaning. When the country virtually shut down, minimum-wage and hourly-wage employees became essential to daily life and survival. There has been a deeper appreciation for frontline personnel – such as supermarket cashiers, pharmacists, restaurant workers, fast-food attendants, truck drivers, postal carriers, building superintendents, and sanitation workers. Another group on the frontlines – nurses, doctors, and EMS and other first-responders – caring for thousands stricken with COVID-19 instantly became heroes. 

But Labor Day 2020 is also riddled with irony because so many millions of Americans, who either lost their jobs or were laid off because of the pandemic, remain unemployed – many of them migrants whose jobs don’t come with health insurance or unemployment benefits because of their immigration status. Below, friars from around the Province share their overall reflections about Labor Day, as well as their thoughts on the new labor landscape and how the coronavirus pandemic has changed perceptions of labor and emphasized the importance of employment.

Michael Blastic, OFM
Michael is a member of the Interprovincial Novitiate team in Santa Barbara, California. He has taught at Siena College in Loudonville, New York; St. Bonaventure University’s Franciscan Institute in Western New York; and Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C.

Francis grew up as a merchant fully immersed in the new profit/social economy of exclusion in Assisi. But his conversion resulted in his rejection of this social reality. God’s grace led him to lepers and those on the margins to be with the victims of Assisi’s unjust social order. Brothers eventually joined Francis in his service. They committed themselves to manual labor as a means of supporting themselves and those who couldn’t work because of physical limitations. They practiced an economy of sufficiency and inclusion, rather than an economy of excess and exclusion. The brothers worked as simple day laborers, or laboritio. In payment, they accepted only what was necessary for the day for themselves and those in need.

This practice of work embodied the social and fraternal values of what it meant to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – from solidarity with all men and women in need, a commitment to care for each other, and the call to participate in creation as gift for all, to the principle of sufficiency, a commitment to the local economy and work with the community of which you were a part (in contrast to the early globalization of the economy in Assisi), and the embodiment in one’s life of the experience of Jesus who worked with his hands. As we witness the inequalities and injustices made visible today in an economy based on profit and excess, we Franciscans have a lot to do. We need to nurture our Franciscan imagination, recover the values of the commitment to laboritio of our early brothers and sisters, and share this in practical ways with those we live and work. Isn’t this, after all, what [Pope Francis’s encyclical] Laudato Si’ is asking of us?

Michael Duffy, OFM
Michael is part of the team at St. Francis Inn, the soup kitchen in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – where, for the past 33 years, he has worked on the breakfast and dinner shifts, driven the food pick-up van, coordinated volunteers, and performed administrative tasks. Michael and the other eight members of the Inn’s team (four friars as well as two nuns and two laypeople), and four Franciscan Volunteer Ministers, have become essential, frontline workers meeting the needs of a growing number of food-challenged individuals and families during the pandemic.

There’s a different tone to labor this year because of so much talk about job loss and the impact of the pandemic on the economy. My worry is that small businesses – especially retail stores and restaurants – won’t reopen, which means that employees in low-level, lower-paying jobs who were furloughed or temporarily unemployed will be most in danger of losing their jobs permanently. This will likely cause a spike in guests – probably a return to the levels of the 2008 financial crisis when the Inn was feeding 400 people a day.

When I am at the supermarket, I can’t help but think about the cashiers risking their lives because they come within three feet of hundreds of people every day. The spotlight has been on essential workers, like supermarket employees and truck drivers who deliver supplies and food. There is a greater awareness that these workers aren’t just cogs in the economic machine, but rather they are real people whose labor makes the big stuff happen. With people doing more shopping on the Internet, the reliance on essential workers is greater. Even our supporters check our website for what we need and send their donations directly to the Inn.

We closed down our dining room and switched to handing out pre-packaged meals weeks before the CDC and government guidelines were issued. That has been a real game-changer for us – letting guests into the yard one at a time, between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., and giving them a bag of food for the entire day. Normally, volunteers and staff would serve guests breakfast at 10 a.m. and dinner at 4:30 p.m. in the Inn’s dining room. Another game-changer has been adjustments in the type of food we provide. It is easily packaged and lasts through the day, and we add fruit, snacks, crackers, candy bars, water, and fruit drinks. Operational costs have also been affected because we now need take-out containers and paper bags.

Another big adjustment has been running the Inn without volunteers. We aren’t serving sit-down meals, but preparation is more intense because of the packaging aspect. We still have to wash pots and pans, and there’s the added layer of disinfecting common surfaces. We miss the volunteer labor of students from colleges and high schools, which have canceled service trips indefinitely. More importantly, students are missing the experience of seeing life through the eyes of the poor. Most of our local volunteers fall into the age group that is at high-risk for COVID, so they have stayed away. However, on the bright side, we were able to welcome four Franciscan Volunteer Ministers. They haven’t let the pandemic affect their desire and excitement to start their 12 months of service at the Inn.

One of the benefits of the Inn is socializing. Before the pandemic, guests socialized with one another in the Inn’s yard and beautiful flower garden. Also, staff and volunteers normally sat with guests and got to know them, which enabled us to find ways to help them with social services and other assistance. That aspect has been lost during the pandemic. We’re not sure when we will be able to reopen the dining room to our guests, but we are already planning for adjustments in the way we distribute packaged food. With school reopening this month, we are looking at a late afternoon distribution because giving out food at 11:30 in the morning doesn’t reach schoolchildren getting home at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Julian Jagudilla, OFM
Julian is executive director of the Migrant Center of New York, which he helped launch in 2013 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City. His work with immigrants and the undocumented includes connecting them to social services and free legal counsel.

Maria Gomez, a frequent worshipper at St. Francis Church, lost her job as a restaurant worker when the pandemic hit. She is one of New York City’s thousands of low-paid, undocumented migrant workers who doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits and has no other source of income. She was forced to stay at home, which is a one-bedroom apartment shared with her daughter, two young grandchildren, and son-in-law – [the latter] a food delivery worker for a local restaurant who contracted the virus and infected the entire household. With no health care and fear of their undocumented status being discovered, they self-medicated instead of going to the hospital. They believed the rumors that immigration police are monitoring hospitals and arresting undocumented on the spot. But Maria’s condition took a turn for the worst because of an underlying condition. She ended up in an emergency room and died in a matter of days – in solitude like thousands infected by COVID-19.

Undocumented workers like Maria were held in high regard as “essential workers” for making daily life and survival possible for many. But we have to recognize that their immigration and economic status made them unique. They aren’t simply essential workers, they are “invisible” essential workers and “unnamed” frontline employees who helped create a semblance of normalcy amid the pandemic. They went out on a limb to deliver our groceries and take-out orders, but we were oblivious to the fact that they could be picked up by ICE, or be infected, at any time. Perhaps we even failed to show gratitude or were stingy in tipping despite the sacrifice they made to sustain themselves and their families. Undocumented immigrants get the double whammy: they can’t claim unemployment benefits, and they avoid seeking medical attention because they are forced to live in the shadows. When they lost their jobs, they turned to food pantries, but the scarcity of supplies created food deserts throughout the city.

COVID-19 has unmasked the socio-economic and racial disparities in our society and has created the opportune moment for change. This change begins with the way we honor all essential workers – and, hopefully, the invisible and unnamed ones are included. Change also should be reflected in the way we think and regard these “strangers” among us who are wrongly accused of “stealing” jobs from Americans. The truth is few Americans would take on the jobs that migrants work – dishwashers, food deliverers, house cleaners, babysitters, landscapers, farmhands. But the way we can truly honor their work and sacrifice during the pandemic – and help the economy at the same time – is providing immigration relief and a livable wage.

Dan McLellan, OFM
Dan has been stationed at St. Andrew Church, where he serves as pastor, in Clemson, South Carolina, since 2012. Before this position, he served as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina, and president of Washington Theological Union.

If ever generations after us include 2020 in what they’ll call the “good ole days,” it will be because the COVID-19 coronavirus helped us recapture something important about work. “Work” was something Francis of Assisi always wanted to do; he recommended work to his friars. Work and the dignity of the worker are highlights of Catholic morality. Since Catholics “arrived” in the professional ranks in the 1960s, we’ve joined others in forgetting that “work” is a hallmark of what dignifies the human person. Where would we be in this pandemic without work – and without workers? Especially those working with their hands, emptying bedpans, making beds, cashing out shoppers, driving trucks, and so many other mundane tasks.

Many of the benefits enjoyed by white-collar workers were won by those who mined coal, stitched clothes, and built railroads. The stock market is a hoped-for future. But “mom and pop” stores, and the immigrants who feed grandma and put grandpa to bed, pick our fruits and vegetables, and keep our hotels running, are the laborers whose dignity on which the COVID pandemic has shed new light.

Labor Day belongs to every worker, but especially to these workers. It’s a shame that it took a pandemic to remind us.

Sean O’Brien, OFM
Sean lives at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary on the Siena College campus in Loudonville, New York, where he serves as director of the mentoring program – a campus outreach ministry that connects the college’s students with inner-city youngsters in the Albany area that range in age from 6 to 17 years old. He reflects on the “cyclists who peddle past us.”

I remember the wintry mix pelting my windshield on a late October night, an annoying reminder that sister winter was close by. I was driving home from Chilton Medical Center in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, where I had anointed a patient in the ICU. Suddenly, I noticed a young man riding a bicycle and mumbled to myself, “Who would be out on a night like this riding their bike?” After carefully passing the cyclist, I discovered the answer in my rearview mirror. I recognized the young man as Julio, the dishwasher from Marina’s, the Italian hotspot in Pompton Lakes. It certainly wasn’t for a leisurely ride. It was his most reliable means of transportation getting to and from work. Julio and his brother Mario were undocumented Mexican immigrants who worked 70-plus long and hard hours every week to send money home to their loved ones. Yet, even with their many challenges, they remained positive and ready with a radiant smile.

That night, I pulled over to the curb. Julio immediately recognized me. I helped him put his wheels in the trunk of my car to give him a ride home. Before I drove off to an unfamiliar neighborhood seven or eight miles away, a grateful Julio said, “Muchas gracias, padre,” in his native language. After arriving at his home, we climbed the creaking steps to the second floor of an old railroad flat, where Julio lived with Mario and about seven other brothers. They welcomed me to their humble environs with undeserved reverence and asked me to bless their home. I am forever grateful for that special night when my eyes were opened to the larger world of challenges experienced by some of our parishioners.

On this Labor Day 2020, colored by the ongoing pandemic, racial tension, and all-time high unemployment, I am reminded of people like Julio who live and work in the shadow of our society. While our current president is intent on building a wall to keep out illegals who are rapists, murderers, and gang members, he supports people who march in [white supremacist] rallies as very fine people. We need to remember that these people labeled as illegal are people of color who wash our dishes, mop our floors, and clean the bathrooms of the places we work, patronize, and support. They earn minimum wage or less, they rely on public transportation – or their bicycles – and take on added responsibilities as parents and caretakers. Hopefully, this Labor Day, we will be more conscious of the Julios who peddle past us on their way to work – and be courageous enough to be advocates on their behalf for what is just, right and good.

John O’Connor, OFM
John was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Virginia, in 2014, and has been serving as pastor since August 2017. He is also a first-responder – a certified firefighter who holds the rank of battalion chief and serves as the lead chaplain with the Prince William County Virginia Department of Fire Rescue.

As we celebrate Labor Day this year, the issue of where we work – and how we do our work – is at the forefront more than ever because of the pandemic. Many now work from their home, but not everyone has that option. Those who work in supermarkets, construction, service industries, hotels, hospitals, and health clinics have little choice. Their work cannot be done from home. They have to leave the safety of their homes and, on a daily basis, risk exposure to the virus. In my work as a fire chaplain, I witness firsthand firefighters – especially our paramedics – putting their personal health and safety at risk in service to others. It’s not exactly a perfect situation for those who are able to labor from their homes. Although it has been suggested that this is the future of labor – even when COVID-19 is, hopefully, brought under control – I question whether working from home is really a good concept. Is it psychologically healthy?

Smart devices, advanced technology, and online communication seem to be isolating us. Students achieving educational degrees without the campus life experience are missing an important component to personal growth and development. Do we really want a future where we relate to each other solely through a computer screen? There is value in being with colleagues in an office environment – the give-and-take, collaboration and creativity, and sharing life experiences. All of that is absent in telework. Then there’s the question of whether it is healthy to have an office in the same environment where a person eats, relaxes, and sleeps. A psychologist friend has told me that such an arrangement is problematic for emotional and psychological well-being. No question, the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to do many things differently – and those able to work from home helped keep the economy working.

Change can be beneficial, but in celebrating Labor Day 2020, we should take this opportunity not only to reflect on the value of our labor but to also contemplate the implications of how and where we labor during this time of COVID.

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jocelyn Thomas provided research for this article.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources section of