When the stay-at-home orders were issued in the first weeks of the pandemic, a new term quickly spread across the United States: Suddenly, some of the most precarious people in the country were called “essential workers.” This didn’t just mean the doctors and nurses who braced for a deluge of patients. It also meant farmworkers, supermarket employees, and the people sorting and packing shipments in Amazon warehouses. It meant home health aides, bodega clerks, and janitors. Confusion ensued: What did essential really mean? Of all the ways Americans were used to talking about jobs—in terms of money, stability, power—we’d not often talked about which workers were most necessary, and which workers were not. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the services that needed to stay open, even as he reiterated that he wanted everyone else to stay home, he said, “Look, society has to function.”
The priorities of politicians and business leaders quickly showed that it was the labor these workers performed that was essential, not the workers themselves. In California, growers gave their undocumented employees letters that they could show if they were stopped on their way to the fields: The papers said the employees were essential, though no document short of a U.S. passport could stop ICE from detaining them. In New York City, nurses hailed as heroes ran out of gowns and were forced to wear garbage bags. COVID-19 ripped through meat-processing plants, and bosses made workers work faster. Across the board, essential workers got sick. The toll on Black and Latino communities has been devastating. The society being protected is one in which these workers’ lives matter less.