Essential, and No Longer Disposable

The pandemic is scrambling how Republicans and Democrats think about paying low-wage employees.

A cashier wearing a face mask, looking at a clipboard in a store
Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call via Getty

The greatest irony of the coronavirus pandemic may be that many of the American workers now considered the most essential were among those treated as the most disposable before the outbreak began.

Meatpackers, farmworkers, grocery-store cashiers, warehouse clerks, janitors, nursing-home and home-health-care aides—all of these positions offer some of the lowest pay, flimsiest benefits, and least job security of any occupation in America.

By highlighting how much society depends on workers who have been compensated modestly at best, the outbreak has produced a kind of inversion of status. More consequentially, there are signs that this newfound respect could increase political pressure to construct a sturdier floor of pay and benefits below workers in any industry.

“I think this will accelerate the day when we raise the minimum wage; I think it will accelerate the time when [paid] family and medical leave comes,” Larry Summers, the Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and the director of the National Economic Council for Barack Obama, told me during a live-streamed Atlantic event this week. “I think this will push us in the direction of more social protection.”

Even business groups that have resisted most new protections agree that this searing experience will likely intensify the debate around them. “What this has indicated … is, we are going to have to have this discussion about what types of benefit-support programs are available for a whole host of workers,” Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told me.

Though it’s garnered little notice, Congress has laid the groundwork for this potential new economic floor in its recent emergency legislation: It’s required many employers to provide paid sick days and paid family leave through the end of this year, and it’s covering gig workers and other independent contractors through unemployment insurance. 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. While Donald Trump is unlikely to advance this agenda if he’s reelected, the precedents in the coronavirus bills could provide the foundation for more lasting changes if Democrats win back the White House in November.

Earlier this week, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, signaled that he would cite the contributions of frontline workers in a campaign push to provide these protections permanently, raise the minimum wage to $15, and ease employees’ ability to form unions.

“I want Donald Trump to look one of these essential workers in the eye—the meatpackers, the delivery drivers, the health-care workers, the grocery-store clerks—and tell them they don’t deserve a livable wage and paid sick leave,” Biden declared in a speech Monday to the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

Such calls will allow Biden to draw a sharp contrast with Trump, who has pushed to indemnify employers against possible lawsuits from employees if they get sick after returning to work and has used the Defense Production Act to mandate the continued operation of meatpacking plants despite multiple outbreaks in those facilities. Several Republican governors, meanwhile, have suggested that, as the economy reopens, they will enforce provisions denying unemployment benefits to those who refuse to return to their jobs because they feel unsafe.

While there’s no universally accepted standard for what makes an occupation “essential,” voices across the political spectrum have recognized the irony that many of the nation’s lowest-paid employees have been forced to continue showing up to work through the outbreak while a greater share of highly compensated Americans are able to shelter at home.

The tenuous economic position of many essential workers was quantified in a report published last month by the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Using data from the census’s American Community Survey, the group identified the demographic and economic characteristics of some 30 million people nationwide within six broad industries, all of which fall under the “essential” category in New York City specifically. These included health care; trucking, warehouse, and postal services; grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores; public transportation; building-cleaning services; and child-care and social services.

The analysis found that a disproportionate share of these workers are people of color, part of families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and less likely to hold a college or postgraduate degree. Above all, they are much more likely to be women: Almost two-thirds of the frontline workers studied were women, compared with just less than half of workers overall. As a group, the study’s authors wrote, these Americans “were essential before the pandemic hit, yet also overworked, underpaid, under protected, and under appreciated.”

The coronavirus crisis seems likely to recast the debate about how to bolster these workers, both between the parties and within the Democratic Party itself.

Democrats during both the Clinton and Obama administrations backed several measures to improve the circumstances of low-wage employees, for instance by expanding the earned-income tax credit. But their principal focus was on helping these Americans escape their jobs by acquiring more skills through training or higher education.

That emphasis was already changing inside the Democratic Party even before the outbreak hit. “More and more progressive policy advocates” have warned that “the focus on education and skills … has distracted from a broader focus on issues of concentrated economic power at the top, declining unionization, and erosion of the minimum wage,” writes Gene Sperling, the former director of the National Economic Council for both Clinton and Obama, in his new book published this week, Economic Dignity.

The coronavirus outbreak will reinforce that trend. It sends the stark message that society will always need people to fill jobs that don’t require advanced education and are not highly valued in the marketplace, but that are indispensable to running the economy. To many progressive advocates, that means the government doesn’t need to just help people graduate beyond those jobs, but also ensure that the people working in them—since people will always be working in them—can secure the wages and benefits to live a decent life.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told me that the spotlight on these essential industries has only crystallized what the long-term labor-market projections have already made clear: Relying solely on improving skills to improve living standards is a flawed strategy because forecasts show that the share of jobs requiring advanced education won’t be much larger in the future than it is now.

Worker advocates complain that the paid-leave and unemployment protections passed by Congress in the Families First and CARES Acts contain too many loopholes and exceptions. (For instance, large chains with thousands of employees but no more than 500 at any one location are exempted.) But advocates agree that the bills could advance the debate for providing protections on a permanent basis. “Much of what’s in the CARES Act is pointing toward the kind of system we should have,” says Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a co-author of the group’s study on essential workers. “It really is just deciding that we are going to have a sensible floor for working people and government has to be part of the solution.”

Beyond the coronavirus-relief bills, the focus on essential workers could also energize other initiatives to support low-wage employees. At the top of that list would be a $15 federal minimum wage; last year, the House approved such an increase through 2025, but the Senate has refused to consider the legislation. In Michigan, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently proposed subsidizing postsecondary education for frontline workers. The huge number of employees who lost health insurance when they lost their jobs is also likely to spur Democratic calls for government to guarantee some sort of coverage backstop for all Americans (if not an entirely government-run health-care system).

Less clear is whether the outbreak will break the impasse between the two parties over these ideas. Most Republicans, typically supported by the business community, have opposed measures such as increasing the minimum wage and providing paid sick days or medical leave. But that opposition has cracked during the crisis: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the provisions for paid time off in the coronavirus-relief bills. In a letter to the Senate, the body said it did so, in part, because the measures are temporary, “without creating a long-term, permanent leave mandate on employers.”

Bradley, the policy official there, told me that the chamber’s decision on whether to support permanent measures for paid leave and sick days would depend on nitty-gritty details that the coronavirus-relief bills did not have time to resolve, such as how to finance those provisions in the long run. He said it’s too soon to say whether the outbreak has demonstrated the need for raising the minimum wage—given critics’ belief that doing so would cost additional jobs—or shifting more responsibility for ensuring health-care coverage to government. But he acknowledged that the role of low-wage workers in responding to the crisis had put these issues “front and center” and made the question of how “to demonstrate our support for them … worthy of discussion.”

If anything, Gould said, the likelihood that the economy is entering a deep recession will leave low-status employees in a weaker position to demand higher wages, much less more workplace protections from employers. “Once we get on the other side of this pandemic, there are going to be workers out there scrambling to find a job and employers are going to be back in the position they were in the Great Recession of being able to set the terms of any wage contract,” she said.

That means any change in the status of low-wage workers is far more likely to come from government intervention than market forces.

The outbreak hasn’t obliterated the partisan and economic dynamics that have persistently stymied attempts to improve those Americans’ position. But by underscoring their contributions, the crisis is shifting the argument for these policies in a subtle but potentially significant manner.

Usually, issues such as a higher minimum wage, universal health coverage, and paid leave have been discussed in terms of fairness—something all workers deserve in a just society. Amid the outbreak, these ideas are being framed more as a benefit that America owes—compensation to workers who have sacrificed for the broader community. Tellingly, Whitmer explicitly analogized her education grant for front-liners to the post–World War II GI Bill, which offered returning veterans college assistance as a repayment for their service.

At LULAC this week, Biden signaled that he’s likely to stress such arguments as well. Higher pay and better benefits, he said, amount to a “recognition that these people put their health and lives at risk so the rest of us could be safe and fed.”

That recognition, among Americans who previously might not have considered what it takes to keep grocery shelves stocked, city buses running, or nursing homes operating, could offer the first real opportunity in years to break the long political stalemate over better conditions for low-wage workers.