Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, showing gratitude to essential workers through nightly celebrations, banners, commercials, and philanthropic efforts have been a globally unifying fortuity. Viral videos of Italians singing from their balconies, Spaniards banging pots, and New Yorkers cheering at the end of hospital shifts created a feeling of a global community--of pride and hope in humankind. The positive wave seemed to continue to grow in the U.S. as people started acknowledging that doctors and nurses aren’t the only essential workers but that janitorial workers, grocery store clerks, and delivery men, people working hourly wage, unglamorous, jobs are just as essential to the daily rhythms of our collective lives.
But, now that the cheering has stopped, a result of the combined short attention span of humans and the larger BLM movement taking center stage, it is the time to start critically reckoning with the foundations of our economy, which constantly demands sacrifice from the most economically and socially vulnerable members of our society. We collectively must agree that simply grouping them in as heroes is not enough recognition. Because truly what does it mean to label someone as heroic? What tangible compensation do they receive from those words?
Essential employees, from the grocery store clerks to the E.R. Doctors who have been working for the past 48 hours straight, did not agree to be our society’s heroes. Calling them such when we thank them does not alter the conditions that caused our country to crumble so those essential employees were forced to carry it on their backs. We must first acknowledge that our country and economy only functions through the sacrifice and exploitation of the working class, which in the U.S. is impossible to disentangle from race and gender, and then we must refuse any attempt to go back to the way things were before.
Why do we call them frontline workers as if they are somehow on a battlefield; as if they readily agreed to give their lives and bodies as shields to protect the average American? How can we redefine what essential should look like so that no one and every one is essential? How can we make lives and health essential over labor and production?
The next step in our obligations to essential workers after calling them heroes and posting signs on our front lawns is committing to their life and safety in a tangible way. The pizza delivery driver, janitorial worker, and nurse don’t need your applause or your performative gratitude they want us to stay home, demand better job protections from our representatives, and to make ourselves uncomfortable by abstaining from participating in the economy of simples pleasures that force them to risk their lives for us.
This pause in our hectic world, combined with a national conversation around race and capitalism thanks to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, is the perfect opportunity to acknowledge the essential labor of hourly wage workers and therefore demand greater compensation and job protections on their behalf. Essential employees are Black people, undocumented people, poor people, people without access to education; in other words, people this country has all too often forsaken. Now is the time to get past applause and corporate commercials and give these essential people the humanity they deserve.
AUTHOR: Valentina Rojas Posada
Essential Chalkboard – Sharon McCutcheon
Nurse – Mick Haupt
Delivery Person – Jon Tyson
Hairdressor – Ewien van Bergeijk - Kwant