Apr. 2, 2020 9:18 am

Opinion: Let us now praise our extraordinary ordinary folk

Yes, low-wage essential workers deserve better pay, but they deserve to be celebrated too.

(Photo by StockSnap from Pixabay )

These days I spend a lot of time flip-flopping from worry to impatience, anxiety to irascibility, and back again. Chalk it up to the fact that, thanks to coronavirus precautions, I’m spending even more time online than I was before.

News. Commentary. Meme. Everyone’s got a view or observation.

A friend recently shared a post from the Facebook page, Arm the Poor You Fucking Coward, on his wall. Arm the Poor’s writer had nothing but disdain for a so-called ” 2-minute clap” in New York to publicly show appreciation for essential workers.

“[G]rocery store workers don’t need you to clap for them,” the Arm the Poor writer stated. “They need to be able to make the choice of whether or not they want to be on the frontlines of this thing without having to risk starvation or homelessness.”

My reaction was perhaps not what my progressive friend expected: Yes, but no.

Yes — because grocery store workers are indeed putting themselves in harm’s way while being paid distressingly low wages. Salary.com reports that 25% of Philadelphia’s supermarket cashiers make about $29,000 per year. In Thorndale, Chester County, that same 25% make $28,000, and in Ephrata, Lancaster County, it’s $26,000.

And no — because those workers absolutely deserve as many “2-minute claps” and other displays of gratitude for the work they are doing as the public can muster. Don’t think they haven’t noticed how infrequently they are included or mentioned when essential workers are thanked or invoked.

If you’ve latched onto the odd specificity of the locations mentioned in the paragraphs above, it is because, while I’m an editor for a (now remote) Philadelphia newsroom, my husband works at a supermarket in Ephrata. Our daughter, who lives with us, works for a different grocery chain in Thorndale. Neither of them are cashiers, but the point stands: their pay is too low for what they are called to do. Especially now that health and safety concerns are part of our daily (hourly) considerations.

And, yet, I bristle at the arrogance of anyone who dares imagine that the only reason they  — or their coworkers — show up at work is because they can’t afford not to get paid.

Like most things, it just isn’t that simple.

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My husband and daughter (and many of their friends at both supermarkets, I’m sure) continue to show up to work because of their sense of duty. To their employers, sure — but also to their coworkers, and to the community that relies and counts on them.

While it may seen ridiculous from the outside to think of the people who shop at a grocery story as a community, I can tell you that both my husband and daughter know the regulars at their stores, (At the height of the great toilet paper panic, they could tell who and how many of the people filling their shopping carts with 12- and 24-roll packs were from outside the community.)

Who abandons community or coworkers in crisis? Who picks a moment of widespread need and fear to act only in their own self-interest?

Not my people. They are a bit like soldiers in the armed forces — they didn’t expect this particular deployment, but they’re going to serve it with honor.

And like my loved ones, so too the CNAs at Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville and WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital who make $11 to $19 per hour and $13 to $16 per hour, respectively. Or the housekeeping staff at Brandywine Hospital who make $8 to $14 per hour. Or the nurses aides in Philadelphia whose median pay is about $16.50 per hour. (These figures come from Payscale, Glassdoor and Salary.com.)

If this pandemic has shown us the cracks in our emergency response preparedness, it has also highlighted the deep cracks in our social façade.

Sure, we all know and talk about how socio-economic status limits access to quality healthcare, to digital resources, to the level of higher education that may make the difference in whether someone eventually becomes a CNA or an RN. Those are all challenges that nonprofits have long worked to change.

Likewise, grassroots organizations and activists have rallied from the first to bump up grossly inadequate hourly wage rates.

But are we doing this work — in the name of doing good, in the name of political change — while erasing the people?

The labor, sacrifice and dedication of the type of essential workers I’ve been talking about in this op-ed hasn’t really been marked or celebrated during the pandemic. They aren’t getting showy expressions of gratitude, nor are they the subject of news stories on-air or online. They’re rarely seen — literally and figuratively.

My husband — who works as a meat cutter for a suddenly very busy department — tells me shoppers may be scrupulous about maintaining a safe distance at the registers, but they don’t even notice when they crowd him and bump his arm while reaching for items he’s arranging in the cooler.

Moreover, he can count on one hand the number of people who do notice him, and think to thank him for still being there.

These aren’t corporate payscales to rail against; these aren’t entrenched structural inequities to issue a 10-year plan to address. They are merely examples of how we treat essential workers when we have been taught to believe — in non-pandemic times — they aren’t very essential at all.

During the Great Depression, Fortune Magazine commissioned a piece from journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, documenting conditions among tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl. Instead of an article, what Fortune got was a massive, poetic, ramblingly astonishing book titled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The irony of the title (which comes from a passage in the Bible) is that, of course, Agee and Evans weren’t focused on the famous men with a voice in how America responded to the great existential crisis of the time. They were focused on the lives of humble, stalwart folks whose tremendous challenges were met with innate dignity, and a quietly heroic resilience that went largely unseen and unmarked.

We are not amid another Great Depression, and lower-income essential workers are not tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl. And yet I can’t help wondering who will create that massive, poetic, ramblingly astonishing work looking deeply at these extraordinary, ordinary folk on the frontlines of the existential crisis of our time.

First, we need to see them. Then, damn it, let’s find good ways — as corporations, nonprofits and individuals — to celebrate them.


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