Essential and Expendable
In 2020 the phrase Essential Worker came into existence. Suddenly the jobs in several industries became clearly vital. They were often taken for granted before but became very needed. I’m not pointing fingers; there’s no use in that. Let’s look at how these employees were treated during the pandemic versus how they’re treated now. These people dealt with the usual work challenges, but they were required to report for duty instead of going home. Letters were handed out so they could pass through any checkpoints that might be set up. The world was turning upside down, and the powers-that-be decided that staying home to stop the spread wasn’t an option for these people. They were needed on the front lines saving lives or working in the non-healthcare industries to keep goods and services going.The Lancet published an article on May 23, 2020, “Although some people have been able to shift their jobs to their homes, millions of workers have jobs that cannot be done at home—not only custodial staff and orderlies in hospitals, but also teachers and child-care workers, grocery clerks and supermarket workers, delivery people, factory and farm workers, and restaurant staff… These people leave their homes to help maintain a semblance of normality for others, at great risk to themselves and their families.” These employees’ jobs were sometimes thought menial, low-wage, or insignificant before the pandemic. But the public faced the reality that these people, despite their poor wages, are the backbone of our society.
Essential Industries: Front Line and Other
All employees in these sectors deserve respect and accolades for what they deal with. Many of them have low incomes, but they still go to work. Some employers gave monetary incentives to help entice them to work. I would like to address each sector above, but I’m not sure my keyboard can handle that much. So, we’ll stick with retail and healthcare workers this time.
Kroger was one of the companies that rolled out one-time bonuses for their front-line employees. WCBI posted in May 2020, “Kroger employees will receive an added boost in their paychecks…called “Thank You Pay”… to acknowledge the hard work their associates have done on the front lines of stores. The one-time bonus is $400 for qualified full-time associates and $200 for qualified part-time associates.”
30 other companies also gave Covid bonuses to their essential workers, as detailed in an article on Yahoo! Finance. “Advance Auto Parts, Albertsons, Amazon, Best Buy, Campbell Soup Company, Casey’s General Store, Charter Communications, Chipotle, CVS Health, DaVita, Dollar General, Gap, General Mills, Hormel Foods, The J.M. Smucker Company, JPMorgan Chase, Kraft Heinz, Kroger, Kwik Trip, Lowe’s, McDonald’s, Pilgrim’s Pride, Starbucks, Target, The Home Depot, Tractor Supply, Walgreens, Walmart, Wayfair, Wendy’s.”
Efforts by these companies to improve their employees’ lives through bonuses are noble. Still, it would be better if they paid their full-time associates a living wage. Some stores increased wages; an article on Business Insider published on May 19, 2021, listed these. “Target, Hobby Lobby, Starbucks, Wayfair, Costco, Walmart, Chipotle, McDonald’s, Bank of America, and Under Armour.” These companies also implemented, as best they could, safety measures for their employees. From the requisite plexiglass panels caging cashiers to occupancy restrictions in many grocery stores to prevent hoards of people from crowding in. In most cases, these stores followed CDC guidelines as best they could to ensure the safety of their employees.
The problem of mandatory masking for all workers became a problem from the get-go. Some would wear several masks, while others would adamantly refuse. Then, when the vaccinations rolled out, many of these once essential workers were facing job loss if they refused to take the vaccine. The general public perception of these people went from admiration and respect to disdain. How could they refuse a potentially lifesaving vaccine? Easily. When they felt it wasn’t going to prevent them from getting covid, they saw no reason to bother with it.
Healthcare workers faced similar and worse problems. The Lancet published an article about the plight of essential workers, “The COVID-19 pandemic has vividly highlighted how much society depends upon essential workers. Praise for the heroic work being done by healthcare workers to save lives worldwide in dangerous, exhausting conditions is everywhere. But those same workers are often left unprotected by governments and systems that have failed to supply them with enough personal protective equipment (PPE), supplies, and resources to do their jobs.” The work was challenging, exhausting, and often thankless. However, the public began to realize the importance of medical personnel.
I spoke with a nurse assistant named Danielle, who worked at a large hospital during the pandemic. When asked about her thoughts on how healthcare workers were treated during covid she said, “If the pandemic taught us (healthcare workers) anything, it’s that JCAHO is useless. The Joint commission normally regulates safety in hospitals. Yet, we were sharing trash bags and reusing disposable masks during the pandemic. Trash bags to wear as PPE and hang them in the patients’ room to reuse the next time we go in the room.
They did virtual audits and didn’t even come into the hospitals during the last 2 years. They’re just now starting to come back, and they’d complain about a drink at your computer station but didn’t do s*** during covid.” There is a severe lack of support and supplies for these workers, and despite this, they still did their best to provide good care.
When many didn’t want to be forced to take the vaccine, they were suddenly deemed non-essential and dismissed. Those who had saved lives watched as much of the public turned against them and demanded they do more. A nurse named Jen stated, “We were finally being recognized for the sacrifices we make and for the difficulty of caring for the sick. People respected our work and appreciated our dedication to caring for patients no matter what. Now we’re looked down on and fired based on vaccination status. We’re short-staffed, overworked, and forgotten about.” They’d already done so much, suffered trauma, worked in impossible conditions, and had their lives turned upside down just because they had been essential.
It took a pandemic to make some realize how vital many jobs are. In the midst of it and in the aftermath, we can see what worked and didn’t. The phrase Essential Worker still makes people look at that employee with more respect, and hopefully, that attitude will continue. These people kept the world going, kept us alive, and kept food in the grocery stores. Treating them with dignity and kindness and encouraging their employers to pay them better is essential.
By Gretchen Hendrick Gardella, MLIS
Gretchen Hendrick Gardella is a Librarian with administrative, research, and vast technical skills. Ms. Gardella brings over 16 years of experience working in academic and public libraries to the discussion.