The term itself, essential workers, is new to the vocabulary in general public use, although we’ve heard it used more narrowly during threatening events in which non essential workers were told to go home. Who was essential was never defined, but it was understood to include at least police, fire and hospital staff. COVID has changed all that. It’s still a little vague but obvious that workers essential to the basic functions of society include more than first responders and hospital staff. They include first line workers who keep us fed, housed, and serviced by utilities. They care for children, the aged and disabled. They pick up garbage, harvest crops, prepare products for sale in grocery stores and pharmacies, and transport the same to where they’re needed. Essential workers turn out to cover a broad spectrum of people without whom the basics of modern daily life cannot be provided. I can get along for a long time without a new car or t.v., but I can’t get along at all without food and toilet paper.
Many, not all, but many essential workers, are at the bottom of the pay scale, earning $10/hour or less in part time jobs offering few or no benefits. They’re likely to have multiple jobs because they’re unable to earn income enough from one to afford decent housing, adequate food, means of transportation, and other necessities of modern life. These are the people who provide the essential primary added value to a product or service that society cannot do without, but their labor is valued at the lowest possible rate payable on the grounds that they are the least educated and easiest to replace. They are, in short, a disposable, interchangeable commodity.
It’s not new. Scripture reports the same thing going on in Egypt roughly 3,500 years ago during the time of Moses. The feudal system of medieval Europe was based on it. The injustices in Dickens’ newly industrialized England were the source of his novels. The American slave economy epitomized it. We gave it an updated makeover through early 20th century applied management theory that defined low level workers as replaceable cogs: needed, but of no value beyond what their physical labor could do that machines couldn’t yet do. Frederick W. Taylor’s 1911 book, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” established the terms that led eventually to late 20th century deification of upper management, while defining workers at the lowest level of producing goods and services as mere human commodities to be manipulated at will. To be fair, mid 20th century developments in Organization Development emphasized the value and importance of first line workers. It was widely taught, popular, and made consulting fortunes for its adherents, but seldom applied with anything other than flavor of the month bromides. But I digress.
The point is that the COVID pandemic has revealed how essential front line workers are to society. Beyond those whom we always understood to be essential, we now add hamburger flippers, custodians, warehouse workers, daycare providers, shelf stockers and an enormous cast of others like them in every field. They deserve more respect, higher pay and greater benefits than we imagined, and it will cost. Prices will have to go up. Those who have much will have to pay higher taxes. Management will have to compress pay ranges at the top to make more room for pay raises at the bottom. Will it happen?
It’s happened before, at least for moments. Waves of plague in the Middle Ages decimated the population of serfs, who turned out to be the essential workers of their age. Survivors gained freedom from their Lords, more respect from society, and greater opportunities to own property or enter a trade. It was often a temporary gain. As economies recovered and wealth again accrued to the Lords, front line workers lost a good deal of their advantage.
More recently, some essential workers in the decades immediately following WWII solidified their advantage through unionization. It didn’t last for a variety of reasons. Some unions became too aggressively greedy. Upper management intended to enforce their assumed right to run things as they pleased without worker interference. New technologies reduced the need for a large skilled workforce. Foreign competition made offshore production more attractive. In the end, upper management gained the upper hand during the Reagan era and were able to erode most everything unions had gained.
Now we have the pandemic and a renewed public awareness of who is truly essential. What will happen? Upper and middle management, it turns out, are easily replaced. Well established span of control studies suggest we need far fewer of them than we have. Mega salaries are nice for those who get them, but have little relationship to the added value their recipients provide to the operation. The bottom rung deserves more. Will they get it? That depends on whether the American voting public elects a government that will enact some form of universal health care, richly fund education from early childhood through higher education (redefined to include trades), reform the tax code to encourage higher pay at low levels and discourage mega salaries, raise and index the federal minimum wage, aid local communities in developing adequate affordable housing, and the like. Moreover, it depends on the American public as a whole that gives more respect and social dignity to first line workers who provide home health care, day care for children, clean places to live and work, and move things from where they are to where they’re needed.