People around the world are showing essential workers their gratitude with applause. Organizers are calling it #ClapBecauseWeCare. In Boston, citizens were encouraged to open a window or stand on their balconies at 7 p.m. Friday evening and to cheer on essential workers for five minutes.
It’s a beautiful gesture. But are gestures enough?
Essential low-wage workers, like grocery store workers, aren’t working because they want to be seen as heroes. They’re working because they have to. The choice for many right now is to either work on the front lines of a relentless pandemic, or lose a vital source of income and go without food or rent.
I’m not saying these workers don’t deserve our gratitude because they’re “just doing their jobs.” They deserve all the appreciation in the world. But we should be working to make that appreciation tangible.
The coronavirus crisis should be changing the way we think about work, and what constitutes dignified, essential work. We’re not looking to the CEOs or lawyers who make six-figure salaries. Outside of doctors, we’re not looking to the highest paid professionals to help us just get through each day.
In order to manage daily life in a historical moment of crisis, we’re looking to some of the most meagerly compensated people in the American workforce — like janitors, fulfillment center workers, grocery store cashiers, and others in food service.
This crisis should make us realize that it’s unacceptable for some of the most crucial workers in the United States — one of the world’s wealthiest countries — to receive pitiful, unlivable salaries. Clapping for them is not going to change that.
The best way to show these workers that we care is to fight alongside them in advocating for their rights, both as workers and as people.
We should support a living wage, and remind ourselves that nobody working full-time should struggle to afford to live. We should support a healthcare system that doesn’t make access to decent healthcare dependent on who you work for and how much that employer is willing to provide. Right now, about half of Americans get their health insurance through their employer. At the same time, low-wage employers usually have costlier health insurance plans, so many low-wage workers opt out of their employer’s health insurance entirely. Imagine not having health insurance while working in a pandemic. This should appall us.
If we value low-wage workers as much as we say we do, we should advocate for their right to unionize, as well. Amazon — owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world — is notoriously anti-union. But without its fulfillment center workers, Amazon — deemed an essential service during the pandemic — simply wouldn’t be able to function.
And yet, these same crucial employees are struggling to protect themselves. Without a strong union, they have limited power to satisfy basic demands, including that they have time to wash their hands, that warehouses be cleaned more frequently, that workers be kept at least six feet away from each other, and that they don’t have to process non-essential items for shipping during the crisis.
Our essential workers, the ones we’re applauding as heroes, are being walked all over. When we’re not clapping and cheering, we should be infuriated.
Everybody wants life to go back to normal. But if this is what constitutes “normal” in the United States, we should strive for more. When this pandemic is finally over, let’s challenge ourselves to fight for our essential workers like they fought for us.