It’s obvious that this pandemic has rearranged the world. None of us saw it coming, but the immediate weight of our survival has shifted onto one group in particular: those employed at your …
It’s obvious that this pandemic has rearranged the world. None of us saw it coming, but the immediate weight of our survival has shifted onto one group in particular: those employed at your local grocery store. They’re the ones keeping things as close to normal as possible as we tear through the aisles, panic buying the toilet paper and, in some cases, taking our stress out on the workers themselves.
At the moment, all we can do is (this writer hopes) exactly what we have been: staying home and only shopping for essentials, wearing a face-covering inside stores, keeping a distance of six feet and absolutely standing up for that worker who’s being abused by a cranky customer. However, many of us have taken another step, signing onto our social media accounts to deem these low-wage workers “heroes.”
Unlike those working in healthcare, these low-wage earners with minimal health benefits, if any at all, didn’t sign up for any potential life-or-death scenarios that required them to be around sick people. It was safe to say, before COVID-19, stocking the shelves, staffing the register and packing bags at the market were low-risk gigs. Both Pennsylvania and New York didn’t require wearing face masks until mid-April, leaving much of the protection of workers up to the supermarkets themselves. Bigger stores were in a better position to protect its workers, as everything requires funding.
Right around that time, on April 14, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), America’s largest food and retail union, and the Kroger Co., American’s largest grocer, issued a joint statement calling on federal and state government to designate workers at grocery stores as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel.” This designation would grant grocery store employees similar priority to healthcare workers in acquiring personal protective equipment because, as UFCW argues, these workers are indeed on the frontlines. And it’s already begun to take its toll: According to UFCW, at least 30 grocery store workers have died as a result of COVID-19, and the union estimates 30,000 more workers are sick with the illness.
So, we do our shopping and we call them heroes. But whom, really, is that making feel better?
Is this acknowledgment helpful in a country that’s been standing by a $7.25 federal minimum wage for more than a decade? Where healthcare for all is a radical idea? Where a sizable chunk of the population typically scoffs at the low-wage worker—whether it’s at the market or a fast-food chain—suggesting helpfully to just “get a better job,” are we saying the word “hero” to dodge the fact that these workers are actually victims?
These workers put themselves at risk, just as terrified of the pandemic as we are, because they can’t afford to stop working; at the moment there’s no hazard pay, and in many cases, no paid sick-leave. So, perhaps, praising them for their work really only makes us feel better.
In our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps society, a chunk of the population has been arguing against raising the minimum wage for many Americans who work 40 or more hours a week and still struggle. Pre-pandemic, those who believed in raising the federal minimum wage to $15 understood that no one deserves to work that much for so little, despite how “unimportant” or “easy” that job appeared to be. Pre-pandemic, those who believed in universal healthcare for all understood that the circumstances of your employment shouldn’t determine whether you go bankrupt for getting in an accident or being diagnosed with a serious illness.
Post-pandemic, many things will be interesting to watch unfold as coronavirus loosens its grip on our world, but especially our treatment of these workers. Will we change how we view these essential positions society would break without? Can we let go of the idea that one ought to have a degree or work in an office to deserve healthcare? Will we still hail them with the same gratitude we do today as they do their part to keep our society running, or will we move on and forget that these citizens might actually deserve better pay and health benefits when the world is no longer in crisis?
Now that we see these jobs for what they are—essential—let’s work toward giving these people the support they actually need. Calling them heroes won’t hurt, but follow that up with acknowledging the unjust system people have been struggling paycheck-to-paycheck under. Let’s fight to put this new level of recognition into action.
Veronica Daub is the managing editor of The River Reporter.