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I joined the workforce at age 16. I didn’t obtain a full-time job with benefits until I was 61. In the intervening decades, I spent a lot of time toiling in typical “female” jobs: retail, domestic and janitorial cleaning, hotel housekeeping, childcare, restaurant work, warehouse work.
I got up at 3 a.m. to bake croissants. I stayed up until midnight washing pots, pans, dishes and silverware at a local restaurant. I kept documents in order and accessible for higher-ups who might need them.
At most of these jobs I made minimum wage. I never had paid sick days. I never had health insurance. Sometimes I went to work sick. I hated knowing this meant I risked making other people sick as well. But, if I didn’t go to work, not only did I not get paid, I risked losing my job entirely.
No one ever said my work was “essential.” Plenty of higher-status, better-paid people did let me know that they found my efforts indispensable for a level of convenience they needed to take for granted. Particularly if I gave notice because I had found work that was better paid or more stimulating, they were quick to upbraid me for my “disloyalty.”
So I’d like to second Jack McKay’s call, in an April 16 BDN column, to go beyond praise for “heroes” to provide tangible support for front line workers. But let’s not stop there. When we speak of “heroes,” it’s easy to envision workers with a skill and professional status we recognize: police officers, fire fighters, EMTs, nurses, doctors. It is shocking for us to realize that lack of necessary testing and equipment have put their very lives at risk.
But what about those whose tasks are so menial they sink below the level of consciousness? People who mop up puke and launder sheets in hospitals and nursing homes are health care workers, too. The COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the essential labor of bus and paratransit drivers, grocery and other retail clerks, warehouse workers, truck drivers, janitors, sanitation workers, public service workers at the other end of innumerable help lines. We have a new appreciation of the help provided by many others: teachers, ed techs, school counselors, childcare workers.
Our time at home is time we can use to practice social mindfulness and rearrange our priorities. When we re-open our economy, let’s work together to ensure that everyone who puts in an honest day’s work can go to bed without worrying about how to pay the rent or the utility bills or how to put food on the family table. Let’s give them the tangible support they need to do their jobs with the dignity they deserve: paid time off, affordable health insurance, a living wage.
Lisa Feldman of Orono is a retired library worker.