The debt we are accruing to workers we now deem essential

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed an ambitious new program to provide free college for workers deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. As reported by Wesley Whistle for Forbes (link here):

Today, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) announced “Futures for Frontliners,” as a part of a series of initiatives to help Michigan families during and after the coronavirus pandemic. This new program would provide tuition-free higher education for those considered essential workers during the coronavirus lockdowns.

…According to the press release, this program would provide those without a college degree a path to a higher education credential or degree. Those specified as essential workers included hospital and nursing home staff, grocery store employees, child care workers, those manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.

May this be but one small initiative designed to recognize the everyday contributions of service workers in our economy and society. Many of us are able to shelter at home and to practice social distancing because of retail and delivery services performed by workers who receive only modest pay and benefits at best.

We owe these workers a growing debt of gratitude, but here in the U.S., we are way behind when it comes to embracing employee dignity as a primary objective for our workplace practices and public policies. For millions of service workers classified as essential employees, the agenda for change includes better pay, safer and healthier working conditions, and health insurance and retirement plans.

Will we see the light?

Hopefully this public health crisis is shining a light on that need for change. And just maybe, wealthy folks are among those paying closer attention.

For example, Mark Cuban — owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team and co-star of the “Shark Tank” reality TV show for budding entrepreneurs — went on National Public Radio in April (link here) and explained how the pandemic has changed the way he regards the importance of corporate social responsibility:

Of anything as devastating and dangerous as the coronavirus has been, it’s also been a great equalizer. I mean, it can affect anybody. But within the business construct, just the idea that everybody has got to do their job or participate in a way that works for not just the business, but for individual families, but also customers. And so, I think it doesn’t matter what your role is. Each role is of equal importance.

The CEO is of no more importance than somebody cleaning the floors or that takes a bucket and mops the floors. I think that this is a time as a reset where we really have to reevaluate how we treat workers, how people are paid, how can we get them into a role where they receive an equity as part of their compensation. So that they’re not having to live paycheck to paycheck, they have something that appreciates. All these things I think are important as we go through this reset in business.

Labor unions are essential to solutions

Even if more corporate executives start to get it, we still need to ground these changes in a stronger labor movement. To illustrate, labor studies professor John Logan (San Francisco State U.) is an expert on working conditions in the retail grocery sector. Here’s a snippet of a recent piece he wrote for The Hill (link here) about grocery store workers, in connection with the coronavirus pandemic:

Researchers have long known that unionized workplaces – whether in mining, construction, manufacturing or warehouses – are significantly safer for employees than non-union workplaces. Now we are learning in real time that the same is true for grocery workers, who have been unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Previously treated as “unskilled” and “disposable,” grocery workers are now recognized as essential personnel who are helping to keep millions of Americans alive.

…Large non-union companies such as Walmart, Target and Amazon have introduced their own measures on worker safety and employment security, but their limited efforts have largely focused pay raises and bonuses to attract and retain employees.

…In the past, many food retailers have lobbied against measures such as paid sick leave that would have better protected workers and shoppers in this time of national crisis. The same companies cannot now be trusted to prioritize worker and public safety over their own greed.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken us hard and fast, and we’ve got a ways to go before we are done with it. Nevertheless, it’s time for us to be thinking about how we can create a society that values the contributions of all workers. If we don’t learn these lessons now, then shame on us.

One response

  1. A gift to front line nurses caring for Covid patients, is to educate them on what they can bring to the fight for better treatment from their managers and administrators. Those bosses have likely violated the terms of their licensure. I have reviewed several nurse practice acts. Cross referencing with news articles and blog posts, there is plenty of merit in nurses seeking remedy for inadequate PPE and retaliation, by invoking the violations their managers are committing. Filing complaints, will allow nurses to stop the retaliatory terminations and create a better chance that their hospitals will provide proper PPE such as N95 masks. I am aware of some nurses already having done this. One state I contacted said, in the last two months, they have received hundreds of complaints of varying kinds. They would not give a breakdown. I hope hundreds of managers are getting letters that their license is being investigated. It might provide for a more civil treatment of our front liners. It will incentivise managers to provide for staff, patient and public safety. For once, nurses need to see that there can be accountability for failures to protect their health and welfare.

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