When the coronavirus slammed the brakes on the economy last year, we all became familiar with the phrase “essential workers.” While many workers were either laid off or working from home, essential workers were the ones who were not given those options. They consequently faced a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, and many in fact did. Workers included in the category ranged from frontline health care providers to meat processing plant employees. At the JBS Pork Factory in Worthington, an outbreak in the spring infected half the workers and killed two.
What struck me about all this is the radical disconnect between work that is considered essential and work that is richly rewarded. Instead, it was the people at the top who reaped the biggest economic gains as a result of the pandemic. The Economic Policy Institute found that the CEOs at the largest publicly traded companies saw their pay increase by an average of 18.9% during 2020, while that of the typical worker who remained on the job went up only 3.9%. Those executives now pull in, on average, 351 times as much as the typical worker in their industry. Economic inequality has been growing in this country for decades, and the pandemic did nothing to reverse that.
Essential workers aren’t being entirely neglected, however. The Minnesota legislature allocated $250 million in their last session for “hero pay,” and a working group is currently negotiating how to divvy that up. They had given themselves a deadline of September 4, but, predictably, Democrats and Republicans in the group are at loggerheads. The Republicans want to focus on frontline health care workers to ensure that the money isn’t spread too thin, while the Democrats argue that it should be spread broadly. When I first read about this, I wasn’t sure what to think.
Then I listened to Sen. Erin Murphy, who is a member of that working group, on the DFL Debrief podcast (highly recommended, by the way). She made two points that hit home. The first was that she had been the co-author of legislation that would have greatly increased the available pot of money, but Republicans had blocked it. So their argument that there was not enough money to go around was, to say the least, disingenuous. Secondly, she pointed out that many nurses who tended COVID patients depended on child-care workers to tend their children. Both were essential to dealing with the crisis, and both deserve to be rewarded.
I hope child-care workers and meat processing plant workers get included in the deal, but in the end a one-time reward doesn’t address the underlying problem that those workers are grossly underpaid. As we recognize who is really an “essential worker,” maybe the best thing that can come out of the pandemic is growing support for movements to organize those workers, many of whom are women and people of color, so they can win for themselves the recognition and compensation they deserve. And we can start by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.