We Now Know Who Society’s Essential Workers Are. And They’re Among The Lowest Paid.

Kyla Mandel

Nation by nation, state by state, officials are urging us all to stay home. After watching the coronavirus crisis unfold in China, Italy and Spain, shelter-in-place ordinances are being issued from New York to California to Washington state, in Quebec and Ontario, as well as across all of Britain and India. Often only the most essential services and movements are allowed.

This includes not just medical services but also jobs often considered low-skilled or low-status: grocery store clerks, trash and recycling collectors, domestic workers, child care providers, delivery services, warehouse and distribution center workers, and postal employees.  

The pandemic is laying bare just how vital these workers are to keeping our everyday lives running smoothly ― and they’re among the country’s lowest paid, often with few benefits. Food workers, who make up 14% of the U.S. workforce, typically make under $12 an hour, less than half the average hourly wage of more than $28 across all industries. The annual income for someone working in elder home care is about $16,000. 

“For us caregivers, it’s a mortal sin to get sick,” Lee Blaza, a California home care worker, said on a press call Wednesday arranged by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Blaza works 12-hour shifts caring for a 98-year-old woman, and back home she has an 85-year-old mother and children to support. “If I get sick, I don’t know how to pay my bills. But you have to remain strong.”

In recent days, there’s been a steady drumbeat of long-overdue recognition of the often-thankless tasks performed by these workers. 

“They were never ‘unskilled workers,’” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Sunday. “They were always essential.”

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