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Essential Workers and Minimum Wage

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

As I was flipping through the dial recently, I came across a program about that new category of employee known as the “essential worker.” The speaker was making the point that prior to the pandemic, the “essential worker” was not really part of the culture. I had to concede the point. Prior to 2020, if we thought about “essential workers,” it was in the context of a snowstorm and who could be on the roads.

Pre-pandemic, our idea of “essential” was formed by time and task. So long as it was a snowstorm, blackout, or similar event with a shelf life of hours or days, we could narrow “essential” down to those cleaning up the mess and maintaining order so we could get back to our normal lives.

But the global pandemic caused us to rethink everything. The pandemic is first and foremost a medical crisis so naturally anyone in the medical field was deemed essential—and they are. Walk into any hospital in the country and take a look in the ICU and you know you’re on the front lines.

Blessings to all those in the world of medicine and particularly those involved with patient care, because they are the ones who form the tip of the essential worker sword. At a time when we knew precious little about Covid-19, amidst a shortage of personal protective equipment, when authorities were lining up freezer trucks to handle the expected dead, they left their families and came to their tasks each day to deal with something the rest of us shielded our eyes from seeing. It doesn’t get more essential than that.

But the very idea of what constituted “essential” changed with the pandemic because with its arrival, we were no longer talking about something with a shelf life of hours, days or weeks. In addition to the time involved, the pandemic is global and it touches everything and everyone. Because it did and because it does still, everything people did and continue to do in their daily lives now carries a degree of risk previously confined to certain jobs and industries in certain locations.

The global scope and deadliness of the pandemic is how we get to a place where we have “critical retail”—how the people bagging our groceries, busing our tables or serving us a McMuffin become “essential”. They might not be essential in the public safety sense, but they are essential in the “we-can’t-possibly-function-in-our daily-lives-without-them” sort of way and the range of those considered essential is vast.

We were previously content to dismiss many of these jobs as nonskilled entry level and the people who held them as losers. If we’re now going to sing the praises of these “essential workers” for being on the “front lines” in what we’ve now classified as “critical retail,” paying them a solid minimum wage is the least we can do. While the praise is nice, it won’t pay the rent that’s about to come due when the moratoriums expire.

Like all issues these days, this will become politicized—if it hasn’t already. We get silly over masks and go absolutely bonkers over vaccines, so it’s hard to imagine that this discussion would be any less politicized. But if there’s a lesson to learn from this pandemic—and there are many—it’s that we’re connected and dependent on one another in multiple ways. The economy largely depends on those previously considered less-than who are now essential workers. Let’s pay them accordingly.

Mayoral Musings