Valuing the People Behind the Title “Essential Worker”

By Saifa Khan

Essential worker—a phrase we’ve heard innumerable times in the past few weeks. As defined by the 2013 Essential Services Act, this is “an employee that performs work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Amid this global pandemic, essential workers are quite literally risking their wellbeing for everyone else and carrying the nation’s weight on their backs. 


It’s interesting the way COVID-19 has changed the way we view many of these essential workers. From the apparent medical staff and pharmacy staff, society had already accepted these workers as necessary, which we see based on pay and benefits. On the other hand, with the less obvious workers like sanitation staff, grocery, and convenience store workers, public transit employees, delivery drivers, and many more, these were jobs that were at the bottom of the social ladder, often looked down upon and underpaid. But today, all these people are stepping out of the safety of their homes to fulfill the duties needed to keep the country running, as well as to keep us safe. 


In a span of a few short months, we’ve put every single one of them on an equal pedestal for doing a dangerous, but a critical job. We’ve shown our praise by clapping our hands and banging our pots out the window at 7 PM, flying planes overhead, shining lights from the Empire State building, but what actual change have we done for these workers? These people have always been doing essential work, but this pandemic has shown us that they have not been treated fairly until our very survival comes down to essential workers doing their jobs.


This crisis has made clear the cracks in our systems, some of which include a lack of hazard pay and the lack of an actual living wage for many essential workers. To show these workers that their sacrifices are not just celebrated for show, but also appreciated in a way that can benefit them, we must find solutions to the issues raised and made so very blindingly obvious by our current situation. Thousands of frontline workers are even taking part in a “May Day” strike to fight back against working conditions that don’t put their safety first, which only shows that our demonstrations of “praise” aren’t helping anyone. To bring change about, we must first value them as individuals as much as we value them as workers.

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