Essential workers deserve more than ‘thank you’
President-elect Joe Biden plans to push governors to enact mask mandates to reduce the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by LukeTDB/Getty Images)
Editorial cartoonists — the outstanding ones, like the Des Moines Register’s Frank Miller and Brian Duffy — have a marvelous ability to express a point of view with only a few words and a skillfully drawn image.
When I was the Register’s opinion editor, Miller’s most famous cartoon hung next to my desk. It was drawn in 1962 amid fears of nuclear war. It depicts the remnants of the bombed-out world, with one man yelling across the chasm to another man, “I said, we sure settled that dispute, didn’t we?”
Another exceptional cartoon caught my eye last week. It shows a military veteran standing next to his shopping cart at a checkout counter. The old guy is saluting the store clerk, who is wearing a protective mask.
“Thank you for your service,” the veteran says to her.
The sentiments conveyed by cartoonist David Fitzsimmons of the Arizona Daily Star were touching — and so accurate.
If this coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that these men and women working on the front lines across America during the coronavirus crisis are truly indispensable cogs in the United States economy. Without them, the economic prognosis for our nation would be bleaker.
These workers staff the gas stations and grocery stores. They serve customers at restaurant drive-up windows or are out of view preparing the food for us.
They drive the trucks that haul the goods we buy. They sell us stamps, sort and deliver our mail. They work on the production lines in meat processing plants. They and their colleagues are on the job 24/7 in the nursing homes and care centers, tending to our loved ones.
A work shirt hanging from the ceiling of a Trader Joe’s market in Washington state summed this up quite succinctly. The shirt bore the message, “Not All Heroes Wear Scrubs.”
But this recognition for front-line workers comes with a big helping of irony.
While countless businesses would come to a standstill were it not for these employees, too many employers treat these workers like they were inconsequential, rather than essential.
It isn’t the corporate executives or the mid-level administrators working from the comforts of their homes who are becoming infected with the virus or dying from the disease. No, the ones we label as essential are the cooks and custodians, the clerks and cashiers, the meat-cutters and the direct-care employees who worry that they are going to become sick on the job.
But corporate America, and too many politicians in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., are ready to fight even a suggestion there should be an increase in the wages for these workers — wages that, too often unfortunately, leave too many employees locked in the ranks of the working poor.
This is the segment of the workforce who live from one paycheck to the next, one furlough or one hospital trip away from losing their homes or apartments or staring bankruptcy in the face.
This is the segment of the workforce who are never scheduled for enough hours to qualify for health insurance or who are not provided with paid sick leave. This leads some to report for work when they really should be at home recuperating from an illness — a decision that easily could threaten the health of coworkers and customers.
Yet, corporations would suffer and corporate executives’ “performance” bonuses and stock options would decline were it not for those workers we are rightfully recognizing these days as essential to life in America. These front-line workers are the ones bringing in the revenue that ultimately boosts many bosses’ compensation.
Signs at a protest last month in Boston put this conundrum in a few choice words: Protect Front Line Workers, Not the Bottom Line.
One employee at another Trader Joe’s store in Portland, Ore., wrote in The Atlantic: “Unlike medical personnel and emergency responders, we didn’t sign up for potentially life-threatening work. … Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims.”
That’s not an exaggeration. At least 20 Walmart employees around the United States have died from the highly contagious disease. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said at least 72 of its members nationally have died, too.
And across Iowa, meatpacking plants and nursing homes have been the two largest sources of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths.
This health crisis has opened everyone’s eyes to the roles front-line workers play in American society. If we are going to expect them to put their own health at risk to serve us, it will be difficult for corporate officials and political leaders to ignore the calls for higher wages, mandatory health insurance and paid sick leave for these employees.
That’s what really is essential.
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