Essential Truths about Essential Workers

by Ellen Bravo

Many years ago, in a new town and in need of a job, I got hired as a nursing assistant at a large hospital. As we learned to take blood pressure readings, empty bedpans and talk to family members of a terminally ill patient, those in charge kept reminding us how essential we were. “You’ll be the first to notice changes in the patient,” they said. “You are our eyes and ears.”

“If we’re so damn essential,” I thought, “why are we paid so little money?” Wages were just above the minimum. I’ve since learned that many nursing assistants and home care workers are forced to rely on food stamps and get their own health care via Medicaid — and that they have the highest rate of non-fatal workplace injuries.

Some time later, married with two little kids, I was again in a new town in need of a job — this time one with health insurance. I used my typing skills to get hired at the phone company. I was excited to have a union job, but horrified to find out I would have no paid sick time for five years. “I know you’re thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to do that?’” the hiring manager told me. “But you just have to. We’re an essential public service utility and we need you here every day.”

The pandemic has policymakers and the media in the U.S. finally acknowledging who essential workers are — but few are asking why these folks can’t afford the essentials. In fact, low pay and lack of time for caregiving are rooted in this nation’s long history of inequality based on gender and race.

Many front-line workers do for a living what women have historically done for free in the home: care for kids and those who are ill, prepare and deliver food, keep the household functioning. In this country’s early years, households that could afford to outsource those tasks relied on the coerced — unpaid — labor of slaves or indentured servants, and later the woefully underpaid labor of former slaves and immigrants. The powers-that-be codified the exploitation of these groups into law.

Finally, in the 1960s large social movements demanded and won equal pay and civil rights laws. These statutes said men and women, and people of different racial groups, couldn’t be treated differently for doing the same work. But by then, most jobs were already segregated by gender and race — and the ones done predominantly by women or workers of color paid significantly less and had few, if any, benefits.

Inequality had been baked into the so-called market rate. And workplaces operated as if all families had a wife at home full time to handle caregiving.

One solution was unionization. As part of the New Deal, working people won the right to organize unions and bargain collectively, greatly boosting pay and access to benefits and proving that power, not supply and demand, determined compensation. But that same legislation explicitly excluded domestic and agricultural workers — jobs done primarily by Black workers in the South, and increasingly by immigrant workers nationwide.

So what to do about it?

First, we need to tell the truth about the source of the problem. Then we need to organize to revalue work and systematically remove gender and race as criteria in compensation. We need to fight for the unfettered freedom to organize unions. And we need to ensure that any definition of “good jobs” includes paid time to care.

We also have to limit the role of money in politics. In the recent Families First Coronavirus Response Act, corporate lobbyists were able to drastically reduce the reach of provisions for paid sick days and emergency paid leave. They arranged for companies over 500 employees to be exempt, leaving out tens of millions. And they narrowed the reasons people could use emergency paid leave to school or child care closings — excluding those needing weeks to recover from the virus, or to care for a close family member with COVID-19.

Let’s keep paying tribute to all the nursing assistants, grocery employees, call center staff and others making our country function during this crisis. But the real tribute will be making sure essential workers can afford the essentials, including time to heal and care for their loved ones.

Ellen Bravo is Strategic Advisor at Family Values @ Work

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Family Values @ Work

Family Values @ Work

27 state coalitions working to win for Paid Sick Days, Paid Leave and other policies that value families at work in your city, county and state, then nation.