What is an essential worker? The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the very idea on its head. Retail salespeople, entertainers and baristas do not make the cut. Grocery clerks, warehouse stockers and delivery people do.
Without these workers, the “rest of us” would starve and run out of toilet paper. Together with health-care workers and first responders, who have always been essential, they form the front line in the war against COVID-19.
Not surprisingly, the value of these unsung heroes has increased. Grocery chains have given their cashiers raises. Amazon employees are demanding personal protective equipment. When companies fail to support their personnel, they get negative publicity. They are thus scrambling to safeguard workers — and their reputations — by making changes. Changes that cost money — and that in low-margin businesses, like food, might be impossible to sustain in the long term, unless they substantially increase the price of their goods.
Some observers claim this heralds a new era. We will place greater value on these essential jobs. Society will grant them more respect, and companies will grant them higher wages. Finally, we will realize the value of this work — work that has long been taken for granted.
In the short term, this is true. But in the long term, things may be quite different.