This outbreak tends to sow more uncertainty than certainty, but it’s made one thing very clear: what constitutes essential work. As my colleague Olga Khazan frankly put it: “It’s not the people who get paid to write tweets all day, but the people who keep the tweeters in chickpeas and Halo Top.”
Those kinds of workers tend to earn less. By and large, Americans seem grateful to them for putting their lives at risk. But could this pandemic reshape the country’s working class?
For starters, why do so many essential workers earn so little? Annie Lowrey posed this question to economists and labor experts and found the answer discomfiting. “They’ve been systematically devalued for years,” she writes. “But they don’t have to be.”
In the past, pandemics have triggered positive changes for workers. One study examined 15 major outbreaks, finding that they increased wages for three decades afterwards, my colleague Olga Khazan reported in her sweeping piece on how the coronavirus could trigger a populist movement (either liberal or conservative).
There are some early signs of political movement. “Though it’s garnered little notice, Congress has laid the groundwork for this potential new economic floor in its recent emergency legislation,” our staff writer Ronald Brownstein points out. “While these measures are all temporary, they represent the first openings in the previous resistance from congressional Republicans and the business community to such ideas.”