Essential work and the struggle for $15

“Why don’t we stop treating it as entirely normal that the more obviously one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”


Last spring there was a widespread realization that many of those often dismissed as having ‘menial’ jobs were the glue holding our societies together. In some areas like healthcare, this was immediately obvious, as hospitals and assisted care facilities rely on custodians and food service employees among many other, often low paid, workers as much as doctors and nurses to function, even if their stories are rarely told.

One would think that these workers, so often celebrated as heroes during the early stages of the ongoing pandemic, wouldn’t go hungry while performing indispensable work. Unfortunately, as many of us have experienced in our own lives, most of these jobs, whether technically ‘essential’ or not, have never paid a living wage.

Stacey Guth, a nursing assistant and mother of two in Shreveport, Louisiana who was making just $10 an hour, explained the daily struggle she was facing to Michael Sainato, a reporter from the Guardian, in late September, “Because the prices on everything we need to survive went up a lot I have had to choose between feeding my kids a decent meal or shorting them on food to make enough for me to keep my stomach from hurting because I’m so hungry. I eat one meal every other day. My place of employment throws the leftover food away and refuses to let staff eat unless we sign a piece of paper for $3 to be taken out of our check.”

Situations like Guth’s could be temporarily alleviated by federal or state governments mandating hazard pay for essential workers like her, which some companies did do early on but abandoned as soon as things began slowly returning to a kind of normal in many places as a terrifying spring gave way to a cautious summer.

In the United States, this hazard or ‘hero pay’ for essential workers started was rolled back at big companies like Amazon and Starbucks in May of last year. Although some counties and municipalities have stepped up to make it a requirement, hazard pay wasn’t brought back widely as the disease spread further and the crisis grew worse over the late fall and early winter.

This isn’t just an American problem, in Canada, although some provinces have introduced hazard pay, on the federal level this is being left up to employers. In the western province of Alberta, a recently announced program which would see some workers receiving a one time $1200 dollar check makes seemingly arbitrary distinctions between those workers deemed ‘critical’ and those considered ‘essential’, who are excluded from the benefit.

While the health crisis at first resulted in more respect being given to essential workers, they have also been asked to do much more at their jobs to meet the challenges presented by the health crisis than they were required to do before.

One of the most difficult things, seen in many countries (and all over Youtube), is the way employees in grocery stores and, as more places reopened, in all kinds of retail and food service locations, are expected to police customers who refuse to follow common sense public health protocols like mask wearing and social distancing.

Not only have these workers been made to enforce these rules without real training, they are being made to play the role of security guards if not police without being compensated for doing so.

Christine Smith, a cashier at a large grocery store in California talked about the toll this is taking on workers like her to a reporter from NPR in the summer, “Last week I think there were three days I just woke up crying because I just can’t do this anymore, I’m exhausted. And people are… yelling at us, cussing at us — because we won’t do returns, because we’re asking them to wear a mask, because we’re telling them they can’t use their reusable bags.”

Who are essential workers?

study by a Washington, D.C. based think tank mainly funded by unions, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), released in late May of last year, reveals some interesting things about the demographics of those engaged in essential work. The report breaks down who these workers are in the United States, with about half coming from the healthcare and agricultural sectors combined.

One interesting thing about these numbers is that health care is dominated by women (76%) and the agricultural and food sectors (50%) are in the main made up of immigrant workers, including the undocumented. Considering what we know about pay gaps, with women making a little over 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, and most migrants, especially the undocumented, probably earning less, the report shows that there is very little daylight between social justice work and labor focused activism.

Other areas which have large numbers of essential workers are transportation and delivery, industrial, commercial and residential facilities and government and community based services.

Another chart in the EPI report compares essential and non-essential workers. Despite their importance to daily life, food and agricultural workers make about $13.12/hour while non-essential workers make on average $20.04. In both areas women make substantially less than men, with a more than $4 an hour difference between non-essential workers on the basis of gender.

The right (and far too many who say they are on the left) might argue that pointing out these disparities is ‘identity politics’ but the progressive argument is that it’s about equality and that we can address issues like long term systemic pay disparities between different communities while simultaneously making efforts to improve the material lives of all working people; these things aren’t mutually exclusive.

In fact, for many on the left, this is what the fight for $15 is all about and its diverse, activist spirit has given new life to a labor movement that has seemed more and more irrelevant to most in the United States and other English speaking countries since Tony Blair and Bill Clinton discovered their ‘3rd way’ in the late 1980s.

Although there’s a strong argument that can be made to go beyond the initial demand to $18, $20 or more after about a decade of fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage, it appears that the Biden administration and conservative Democrats are breaking an important campaign promise to finally make it a reality.

What’s infuriating is the excuse being given for not following through on a pay raise for millions of struggling people, a failure that could seriously damage the Democratic party’s prospects for the 2022 midterm elections.

The reason? The Senate parliamentarian (an unelected person sometimes called the body’s ‘referee’) ruled against allowing the federal pay raise for those making as little as $7.25 an hour (or $2.13 for tipped workers) in the latest Covid 19 relief bill under the reconciliation process that requires a simple Senate majority and avoids a Republican filibuster.

There’s a pretty big problem with this excuse as VP Kamala Harris in her role presiding over the body could easily overrule the parliamentarian and force those fighting the wage hike like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to choose between voting against a bill that offers much needed relief to so many or please a donor class determined to keep many working people poor and, ironically enough, reliant on the government for aid like food stamps.

As Bernie Sanders put it to reporters, “My personal view is that the idea that we have a Senate staffer, a high-ranking staffer, deciding whether 30 million Americans get a pay raise or not is nonsensical. We have got to make that decision, not a staffer who’s unelected, so my own view is that we should ignore the rulings, the decision of the parliamentarian.”

Like many on the internationalist left, I was hopeful after a few weeks in which the new president seemed to be moving a more progressive agenda forward, raising the bar in some ways for other leaders. The last week or so has shown that this cautious optimism is at best already being taken for granted.

Activist and anthropologist David Graeber, who we sadly lost last year, summed this up perfectly in a recently published essay, “Why don’t we stop treating it as entirely normal that the more obviously one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it; or insisting that financial markets are the best way to direct long-term investment even as they are propelling us to destroy most life on Earth?”


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