What the working class tells us about our nation.
Let’s face it. Civilization was not built by men in suits. The rise of cities, communities and governments was not the work of office-wielding CEOs and Stock Brokers, but by the weatherbeaten hands of farmers, builders, healthcare workers, engineers and educators.
But make no mistake, this is not a comparison game. It is simply an appreciation for those who make it possible for all other professions to flourish, and for the rest of us to enjoy the freedom of choice when we pursue our passions.
No more is this appreciation more vital than during the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been 8 months since the first American case of the Coronavirus was confirmed and the pandemic is not showing signs of ending anytime soon. The virus has led to the infection of 6.3 million Americans, the death of more than 190,000 and unprecedented rates of unemployment.
These numbers are horrifying. And yet, the Coronavirus pandemic is about so much more than just the numbers. It’s about the people who strive to protect us from the deadly bite of Covid-19. It’s about the fight that has to be fought to defeat the virus.
In the words of Shakespeare, “The labor we delight in physics pain”, the pandemic is about work.
Who are they?
Apart from the well known industries, such healthcare, agriculture, transportation and energy, “essential workers” may also come from less publicized fields like waste management, IT, facilities services and finance. Social and economic structures are becoming increasingly complex, but these services remain fundamental to the building blocks of civilization as we know it.
One of the most notable demographics is gender-dominated fields. Women greatly dominate me in the healthcare sector, at 76% of workers being female. Male dominated sectors include energy (96%) emergency services (88%) and transport/logistics (76%). What’s also interesting is that women vastly dominate the government/community services at 73%.
The demographic that’s perhaps the most closely watched is ethnicity and racial groups. In sectors such as food, agriculture and facilities services (cleaning, fumigation etc), people of color make up at least 50% of the workers, the highest the demographic has ever seen. This reflects the increase in America’s ethnic diversity, both in the country’s overall population as well as its workforce.
Perhaps the most interesting metric is education. Almost 70% of essential workers do not have a college degree or any higher qualification. What this suggests is that the nature of essential work seems mostly unchanged since its creation. While the efficiency of essential work has evolved over the centuries, with improvements in science, technology and accessibility to formal education, it is still grounded in manual labor and ‘old-fashioned’ handiwork. Additionally, it confirms that despite the complexity of the modern job market, a country’s prosperity, as is in America’s case, rests firmly rested on the shoulders of the working class.
What challenges do they face?
It seems counter-intuitive that the most essential roles in society seem to face the most challenges. This is a paradox that traces back to the dawn of civilization itself. The working class have historically always been the ones to ‘bear the grunt’. One only has to look back a mere 230 years to see this. One of the main contributors of the French Revolution of 1789 was the extreme dissatisfaction of the “Third Estate” (the working class) with the economic abuse of the monarchy and the bourgeoisie. It was seen again in 1980s Britain, with Margaret Thatcher and the miners’ strike.
So is America destined to suffer the same fate? Is the Coronavirus creating the same unbearable economic conditions for our essential workers in 2020?
Essential workers continue to endure working through the pandemic with below-average pay. The CARES Act of March 2020 did not include any protections for essential workers, such as Hazard Pay or increased workplace. The next relief bill, which continues to languish in Congress, is unlikely to address these issues either. Joe Biden has pledged to rectify essential workers’ issues with his proposed “4-Point Plan”, should he attain presidency in November.
In June, JustCapital reported that “an analysis of the largest 301 employers shows that 29% of companies are offering some formof financial assistance, while only 12% of companies have instituted a temporary hourly wageincrease or hazard pay to frontline workers who are at risk of contracting COVID-19.”
In all 50 states, essential workers earn less than their state’s average income. A graphic published by business.org highlights this concerning disparity.
As the school year commences with from-home Remote Learning, access to childcare is more crucial than ever for parents in essential work sectors.
While the majority of states do offer some form of free or subsidized childcare for parents in essential fields, there are often massive bureaucratic hurdles workers have to cross through before being deemed eligible. Childcare facilities are also struggling to attain the necessary safety equipment to maintain a healthy standard. The Mississippi Department of Human Services, for examples, states that “Due to the scarcity of health and safety items, the quantity of supplies available is limited” for their childcare provider support, which in turn limits their availability and efficiency.
Despite unionization, workers across the country have still expressed strong disapproval with both government and employer responses to the pandemic.
Employees of Amazon, Instacart and Wal-Mart are amongst the unhappiest, all of which have staged walkouts or strikes. Amazon employees famously orchestrated a strike outside Jeff Bezos’ home, channeling their disapproval with a list of 10 demands.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union has also pushed back at Chicago Public Schools’ demand that all Operations workers (receptionists, attendance officers, security guards) return physically to work.
What does this all mean?
The most important thing to note here is that these issues are cumulative. Essential workers experience these difficulties simultaneously. These challenges are also in a long line of already existing issues, including punishing minimum wage, expensive living costs, poor working conditions and outdated government services technology. While it is promising to see that some states have stepped up to address some of these issues, one cannot help but feel disappointed that it is only happening now, when the phrase “too little too late” seems to apply.
One also has to keep in mind that the challenges that essential workers face during the pandemic are intensified through additional contextual issues such as police brutality, severe wealth inequality and the 2020 Elections. Given the Trump administration’s lackluster response to the pandemic, especially during its onset, it is no surprise that alarmist sentiments have permeated throughout social media. Words like ‘revolution’ and ‘facism’ have entered our social consciousness once again. Whether these ideas have the plausibility that some believe they do is yet to be seen.
America seems to be at a turning point. A climax. The nation’s ongoing social issues have been magnified by the struggles of the working class during the Coronavirus pandemic. These conditions do bear a resemblance to those from other momentous historical events. What happens in the next few months will determine the type of economical, social and ideological shift that we are destined for.