The wages of the essential can be death

Joe Dowd
BridgeTower Media Newswire

There's a man I see in the produce section of the local grocery store who is meticulous about his work. He keeps the parsley clearly marked from the cilantro. If you’ve mixed up those two you know why that’s important.

He arranges the peppers in a rainbow work of art: red on the left, yellow in the center and green on the right. He or someone else is always restocking the produce aisle, even late at night in the days when the store was open until 11. You took it for granted that you could buy all the onions and potatoes you wanted, that garlic and shallots would be plentiful.

And there would be all the meat you desired.

I just learned that the older, immigrant man has the coronavirus and is hospitalized and intubated.

Like the produce man fighting for his life, my daughter and supermarket workers everywhere are considered essential workers, stationed on the front lines of keeping the rest of us fed through the pandemic. If before this plague you never appreciated their work – for most performed at minimum wage – this is a good time to start. As of this writing, more than 40 grocery workers have died nationwide from the virus.

The trenches of this war against COVID-19 are filled with the overworked and underappreciated. Some dismiss them as the byproduct of supply and demand and inadequate education. And yet, how many highly educated Americans are sitting home today, not deemed as essential as those grocery clerks or cops and firemen, or nurses and EMTs?

Isn't it ironic that so many of our essential workers are paid far less than they are worth? Isn’t it remarkable that in the wealthiest society in the history of the world that our most essential people are universally underpaid for jobs that many of us would not or could not ever do, I among them?

Some examples that may astound you, even move you to work for change when this is all over:

The average wage of a worker in a meatpacking plant is about $30,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Smithfield Food, a meatpacking giant, has closed its Sioux Falls, S.D.,  pork plant as 10 percent of its 3,700 workers are sick with the coronavirus.

Aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, where a captain lost his command for demanding help for his sickened crew, 600 sailors have tested positive for this stealth enemy. One unnamed sailor has died. An entry level enlisted seaman makes about $30,000 a year, more if he or she stays on for years, hoping against hope to avoid the horrors of war.

In New York, some 59 MTA workers have died from the COVID-19 virus and more than 2,000 have tested positive, according to Newsday. Working for the MTA can pay well – the average salary is a reported $81,000 a year. Given what you know, it’s clear these workers deserve it and have suffered a terrible price for their vocation.

The list of the essential goes on and on. Teachers, police officers and firefighters have died because they are essential to us. They go to work regardless of the risks. Doctors are exhibiting great bravery in the face of this disaster, but let’s not forget those who must labor in the background of our hospitals: the nurse’s aides, the janitors, the cleaning staff. All essential; all in grave danger, all underpaid.

In truth, we are all essential to someone. All of us. No one should be the least among us, discarded or dismissed as unimportant. I know an awful lot of non-essential workers whose sickness or death would devastate me. I live in constant fear for my daughters, and my mom across the sea. They define my essentials.

When this finally ends, we can choose to revert to capitalist economics or we can reach deep into our souls to find our humanity. What we’ve learned from this crisis thus far should be enough to reset our way of thinking. This is our chance to ensure a living wage for all and to find a way to provide quality medical care to everyone at an affordable price.

In the post virus age, it will be essential that we do this.


Joe Dowd is editor and associate publisher of LIBN.