Are We Taking Care of Essential Workers?

are we taking care of essential workers

Despite some media claiming otherwise, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over. While most of us are in lockdown, workers that are deemed essential are in the first battle row. This is why taking care of essential workers is important.

If you were watching television or reading news during the COVID-19 lockdown, you have probably heard about the heroes working on essential positions that are sustaining the rest of the country. However, the Senate is yet to vote on the hazard pay. At the same time, not all essential workers are deemed worthy of it, despite all of them risking their health while working. Are we really taking care of essential workers?

Most Essential Workers Have Minimum Wage

Despite what you may think, most essential workers make around $15 per hour or less, which is considered a ‘living wage’. For example, certified nursing assistants and patient care technicians make roughly between $9 and $13, depending on their position. The Wall Street Journal reported that only 1 in 4 companies are extending hazard pay, while most of the companies that have temporarily boosted wages have raised them for a bare minimum. For example, Walmart gave workers one-time bonuses of $150 – which is still better than most companies are doing. In some states, some health-care workers have had their wages increased, but even that depends on how much contact they had with COVID-19 patients.

They Fear Losing Their Job Due to Sick Leave

Everyone’s claiming that we’re taking care of essential workers, but that seems to be the case only while they are working. Around 75% of US citizens work for companies that can qualify for exemptions from paid sick leave. There are stories about workers who were forced to take sick leave or to work from home who were either left unpaid for weeks or who were let go as soon as they came back. The stress of just thinking about losing your job is worsened by the fact that unemployment is rising, not just in the US but all around the world.

This leads to another problem, as we risk having essential workers who are going to work sick and risk spreading various illnesses around, not just COVID-19 but also more known things such as flu. All of this could be prevented if we as a society start taking care of essential workers. 90% of employees have reported that they go to work even when they aren’t feeling that well, out of fear of losing a day’s pay or even their entire workplace. In fact, the US is one of the few countries in the world that don’t mandate some kind of paid sick leave. On the other hand, most developed countries require at least 28 paid sick days, and the number goes even up to 50, which is the minimum in Norway. 

Most data also show that Hispanics and Latinos are especially at risk, as their unemployment rate tripled. This isn’t the case just with service jobs, as the scenario is being repeated even among the essential workers – especially if they are working in the food or delivery business.

Not All Essential Workers Are Deemed ‘Equally Essential’

When we say ‘essential workers’, most people think about doctors and nurses who are directly fighting the Coronavirus pandemic. However, there are more workers without whom our quarantine life wouldn’t be possible – such as grocery store workers, fast food delivery drivers, healthcare housekeepers, nurses aids or other healthcare ‘technicians’, such as radiology techs or surgical techs. These are all very thankless jobs that are required in order for the doctor and nurse to perform their job appropriately. Most of them do not even consider themselves ‘heros’, they just want the appropriate ppe to do their job.

Companies such as Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, FedEx, and others, have become the unexpected frontline workers during this crisis. However, most of them aren’t included in the government’s hazard pay, despite them risking their health every single day. Most of them don’t even have any protective gear, if they do have protective gear, their company wants them to reuse their N95 mask or get one that has been resterilized. This is why there was even a nationwide protest on May Day. 

Lack of Health Care

The big irony is that we aren’t taking care of essential workers, while they are taking care of us. So many US citizens, including those working on essential positions, lack basic health care. Studies show that around 29% of adults and over 10% of elderly Americans are uninsured, meaning that if they get sick, they have rather high medical expenses, especially when compared to their income. Essential workers aren’t excluded from this calculation.

This is extremely downgrading if we look at the rest of the world. 112 countries provide universal health care for all their citizens! The US isn’t on that list. In fact, the US is the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development without a national health care system!

What Can We Do to Help?

Many initiatives started in the past few months that fight for better work rights and bigger wages for all essential workers. One of those is the Essential Workers Bill of Rights proposed by US Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna. This Bill is proposing health and safety protections, bigger compensation, guaranteed paid sick leave, and other policies that will help taking care of essential workers.

There are even things that we as individuals can do to help relieve essential workers of some stress. If we stay inside as much as possible, practice social distancing even now when it seems like the crisis is nearing the end, educate yourself on how to wear face masks correctly and do all we can to remain healthy, we can help bring the end to this pandemic faster. This will not only relieve essential workers of some stress but also save the lives of thousands. That way, all of us will be small but meaningful heroes in this battle, unlike any other we had for over a century.

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