“Essential” Means Underpaid and Unprotected

What we owe the people we rely on during the pandemic

Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog


Credit: RichLegg / Getty Images

If someone tells you that you’re “essential,” you’re going to want to run the other way. Because “essential” now means underpaid, unappreciated, sacrificial, and there to serve everyone else.

In the future, definitions in the dictionary are going to need to include what “essential worker” came to mean during the Covid-19 crisis. You were essential, but your health, your income, your life, your safety net, and your well being turns out are “not as essential.”

Keeping America’s steaks and Big Macs was essential to Trump as he called meat packing plants essential before they could retrofit so as to not become blazing hot spots. You show who’s essential by who you protect and who you don’t.

Asking people to go to work to keep America moving is nothing new to people who get up early in the morning to pick crops, drive trucks, move boxes, stock shelves, ring the register and bring things to our doors.

However, other countries like Italy drew much harder lines and asked for much more sacrifice than we did. Shopping only on certain days of the week. Better isolation. More short-term pain for all for quicker long-term gain instead of luxury for some on the shoulders of others.

A crisis shows our truest colors. The U.S. put the needs of the well-off first, asking for relatively-speaking minor sacrifice (other than learning Zoom angles and teaching math to our kids, which is actually no small thing). But “essential” workers have it different.

Essential workers sleep on couches to reduce family spread, beg for masks, take public transport and of course, interact with “non essential” people who refuse to wear masks or socially distance. This just scratches the surface of the indignities of being “essential.”

Black communities not only have been getting disproportionately sicker from Covid-19 but are disproportionately asked to work to support the rest of the country. Wonder if there’s any correlation…

How grateful are we as a nation to the essential? Well, we decided that as of May, if people couldn’t work for health reasons, they wouldn’t get unemployment in most states — starting in Georgia.

We decided not to ensure people had their health care costs paid for. Or make sure they got access to enroll in health care if they got laid off.

Now Mitch McConnell says he won’t renew unemployment insurance. He does want employers released from liability if you get sick in the job. And he’s willing to have a showdown with our lives as stakes this month.

There’s been no hazard pay, job guarantee, minimum wage (let alone UBI), guaranteed paid sick leave. We are seeing the longest food lines seen in anyone’s lifetime and now we are allowing people to get evicted from their apartments.

People who can’t make rent in this difficult time—including many who we think of as “essential”—will be evicted along with their families. Unless Congress stops it. The House passed a bill to protect them. The Senate again isn’t moving yet.

Trump has mismanaged our coronavirus response so epically and miserably that he’s not going to try to fix it. But instead run a re-election off of “job growth” numbers. Trump is taking a dollar from you and giving you back five cents and taking a bow over the nickel.

Yes, Trump campaign supporters will repeat this as “a wonderful economy.” An economy built on Amazon and GrubHub orders while food lines for the essential workers there are at record levels.

If Trump and McConnell want to run in 2020 on the economy, they should start by making it a priority to keep people safe, put money in their pockets and allow them to avoid medical debt, homelessness and hunger. That’d be a good start for someone you consider essential.

What do we owe people we rely on so much? A plan:

  • Retrofit workplaces with inbound air systems and filters
  • Require masks be worn in their presence
  • Safe transportation
  • Daily testing as needed
  • High quality masks guaranteed
  • A living wage that doesn’t disappear after the crisis
  • Health care guaranteed not tied to their jobs
  • Paid family leave/paid sick leave
  • Comfortable isolation options if they get sick
  • Vaccine priority

And essential workers should be reason enough for us to mask up. If it’s a hardship for you to wear a mask, please don’t force people who have no choice to come face to face with you.

Single moms with a sick kid. Someone who can’t visit an elderly parent. Laborers with a family in a 1-bedroom apartment. I hear from all of them. These are the people we don’t see very well when we make policies and talk about the “essential worker.”

We have non-profits working over time with shrunk budgets trying to help. We have a Congress that won’t act and a president who doesn’t care.

Our proud tradition of stepping up for people in need in this country in times of need or floods or hurricanes will instead become our own 21st century Dickens story. If we don’t do something, this is how the history of Covid-19 will be told.

This is pulled and lightly edited from my July 7 Twitter thread.