The workers who restock grocery shelves. The workers who aid the dying in hospice-care centers. The workers who pick strawberries and butcher chickens and cows. Who transport vital goods from port to store, and spirit away trash and recycling from homes and businesses. Who change the linens in hospitals, deliver food, watch babies, and help people with disabilities. Along with doctors and nurses, these are the heroes of today’s crisis. They are the people putting themselves at risk to keep others alive and society functioning through the country’s shelter-in-place orders. They are the essential.
So why are so many of these workers making poverty wages? How can work worth so much be worth so little? Over the past few weeks, I asked economists and labor experts that question. The answer was discomfiting: These essential jobs are bad jobs not because of ironclad economic laws, but because of the kinds of people who hold them and the kinds of labor laws we have chosen. They are bad jobs because we have not cared to make them good jobs. But there’s some comfort in that: We can choose to care.
The need for change has long been apparent. Before the pandemic, many essential workers were just getting by. Now their jobs are more dangerous than before, and many cannot afford to quit, not with the unemployment rate at nearly 15 percent. One in seven essential workers lacks health insurance, and one in three lives in a household that makes less than $40,000 a year. Millions of grocery-store workers and slaughterhouse employees and home health aides rely on food stamps. Our most essential, most useful, and most needed people are our most economically fragile.