This article is part of Fast Company’s Lessons of COVID-19 package, exploring some of the ways America has changed since the pandemic hit and what we have learned from it. Click here to read the entire series.
Before this year, the notion of being an essential worker might have sounded like little more than a trite workplace title for corporate employees. Then came the pandemic. In the spring, as the coronavirus swept the country, state leaders issued stay-at-home orders and offices emptied out. The wealthiest among us fled cities for greener pastures, and white-collar workers more or less continued business as usual while safely ensconced in their homes.
Meanwhile, essential workers whose jobs can’t be performed from home have risked their lives to keep the country running. Social distancing was never an option for these workers, many of whom have long been underpaid and treated as expendable.
Healthcare workers have toiled tirelessly for months as COVID-19 cases overwhelm hospitals—and the worst is yet to come, as hospitals strain to accommodate another surge in cases. Home health aides and nursing home workers have been tasked with caring for vulnerable populations that have become vectors for outbreaks.
An estimated 2.5 million farmworkers have been forced to work in close quarters—often without adequate protective gear—to put food on our tables. “People go to work on buses where there are 40 or more people, so social isolation or social distancing is really almost impossible to do, both at home and at work,” one farmworker told me earlier this year.
Grocery store workers have tolerated abuse and harassment from customers who refuse to comply with mask mandates, and thousands of workers at meatpacking plants have fallen sick amid ineffective oversight and negligence. In cities like New York, transit workers stayed the course while the city was under lockdown, operating trains and buses even as a rash of COVID-19 cases took the lives of MTA employees.
Amid the pandemic, job security has been in short supply for all sorts of workers. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs or face the threat of layoffs. As the economy navigates a tentative recovery, each jobs report has been more sobering than the last: Temporary unemployment has turned permanent for many people, and there are currently 10 million fewer jobs than there were in February.
Even so, the promise of employment comes at a steep price for many essential workers, who are among our most economically precarious. Though paid sick leave has been adopted more widely over the last 10 years, lower-income workers remain far less likely to have access to the benefit: Only 31% of the lowest earners—workers with hourly wages of $10.80 or less—have any paid sick leave. That leaves many essential workers with no choice but to go to work and expose themselves to the virus, or to show up at their place of work despite being sick.
Even as the pandemic has underscored that these workers are indispensable, many employers haven’t done nearly enough to keep them safe. In October, Amazon disclosed that nearly 20,000 of its U.S. workers—including Whole Foods employees—had contracted the coronavirus, and many workers have protested and spoken out against inadequate protections during the pandemic. (Amazon, in turn, has reportedly fired certain employees who tried to agitate for better working conditions.)
Employees at Instacart, Amazon, McDonalds, Walmart, and other businesses have gone on strike, demanding better protective equipment and pay increases. Some retail and grocery stores have prioritized the comfort of customers over the safety of their employees, and many such businesses have quietly pulled the plug on hazard pay bonuses that they offered earlier in the pandemic.
Many of these workers simply don’t have the voice or financial security to advocate for themselves, out of fear that they might be retaliated against and fired. That’s partly a function of who tends to hold these jobs: Women, people of color, and immigrants are overrepresented in low-wage positions, and jobs that are perceived as women’s work have often paid less than those dominated by men. A New York Times analysis found that one in three jobs held by women has been classified as essential during the pandemic, with a majority of those positions being in healthcare, social work, and essential retail services. And undocumented immigrants account for about 5 million essential workers, a group of workers with few to no labor protections. Millions of essential workers also lack union representation, curbing their ability to improve their working conditions through collective bargaining.
Since March, these essential workers have been hailed as heroes. But a true reckoning with the crucial role essential workers have played in this pandemic must start with an accounting of how we have failed to create good jobs for them in the first place—and what we owe them now.
“What gives us hope is that workers who have been previously invisible in the popular imagination are suddenly being seen as essential,” Ai-jen Poo, cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told me earlier this year. “I think that’s the single greatest opening for us to improve the quality of work at the bottom half of the economy—to support these workers in the way that they have always deserved.”
In the spring, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which secured up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers dealing with sickness or childcare. But the bill applied only to companies with fewer than 500 employees, leaving out countless workers at behemoths like Amazon and Walmart. Those benefits run out on December 31, and with the stimulus package stalled in the Senate, it’s not clear when workers will get the protections they need. As paid leave has garnered bipartisan support and at the state level—Colorado just became the ninth state to adopt a paid leave program— advocates have argued that federal paid leave legislation is long overdue, particularly against the backdrop of the pandemic, when so many workers who became sick or were at high risk had little recourse.
The movement for higher wages obviously predates this year: Since 2012, the Fight for $15 campaign has pushed for minimum wage increases and union rights for low-income workers, and during the November elections, Florida became the eighth state to vote in favor of a $15 minimum wage. But the stark disparities between the value of these essential jobs amid a pandemic and their paltry compensation could meaningfully upend the status quo. President-elect Joe Biden has already pledged support for a federal $15 minimum wage, and a win in a state like Florida—hardly a Democratic stronghold, unlike the states that have previously passed wage hikes—is a significant step toward that.
One proposal to meaningfully recognize the role played by essential workers is a new iteration of the GI Bill, which was originally introduced in the aftermath of World War II to support veterans and is credited with establishing a middle class. We have an opportunity to create a more inclusive bill that could do the same for essential workers, as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has partially modeled through Futures for Frontliners, a program that will provide free community college tuition for hundreds of thousands of essential workers in the state. The pandemic could also be an opening for meaningful immigration reform that forges a path to citizenship—or, at minimum, legal status—for the millions of essential workers who are undocumented immigrants.
With COVID-19 case rates exceeding even the highs of the spring, states are grappling with difficult decisions about who should receive the initial supply of the vaccine. For now, the essential workforce—from public transit workers to food processing workers—are at the top of the list. This is the moment to make sure they aren’t reduced to an afterthought when we’re on the other side of the pandemic.