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Coronavirus ‘essential workers’ have rights too | COMMENTARY

Essential workers like the grocery cashiers are celebrated as heroes during the coronavirus pandemic, but are often underappreciated when times are good.
Essential workers like the grocery cashiers are celebrated as heroes during the coronavirus pandemic, but are often underappreciated when times are good. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

You used to be a disposable workforce. Now you’re essential.

If you are an “essential worker” and can spare enough time to get on a laptop, you can read the panegyrics. You are the ones who keep the machine or the institution or the state going. Offices are empty, and restaurants, bars, stores are all closed in Maryland. Yet without essential workers like you on-site, doing your job, everything falls apart. You include maintenance workers, police, nurses, information technology staff, plumbers, garbage men, truck drivers, grocery clerks, construction workers.

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You’d think if someone determines you’re essential, that means they’re thinking of paying you more. Isn’t that the way supply and demand works? As we all know, it’s not the way it works, even though you are more productive than ever. Your net worth, if you’re in the middle 40%, is stagnant. Your wages are not growing much either. Since 1979, the wages of the middle percent have increased 33%, while the wages of the top 10% have increased 218%. In the meantime, the cost of college and health care has rapidly risen.

To put it simply, for many essential on-site employees the middle class life is a pipe dream. For every person who’s singing your praises, there’s someone else working to make sure your wages stay stagnant. If you’re a nurse, you’re a hero during this pandemic. Yet, John Hopkins spent millions in 2018 in its aggressive campaign to prevent you from organizing.

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Across Maryland, you keep counties running. But when the budget cutting starts, too often, you are the first on the block. Our governor — now hitting his stride in the media — says that you’re essential, while the rest of the state is directed to stay inside. He was the same one who, in 2018, vetoed a measure mandating paid sick leave for 700,000 Maryland workers. And in 2019, the same governor vetoed a $15 an hour statewide minimum wage bill.

They will argue that you’re busting the budget by asking for a raise. But if you’re a maintenance worker, you know you earn a lot less than you need, your benefits have been stripped away and you often work a job on the side to make ends meet. Corporate America has done what it can to reduce you to at-will status: funding massive anti-union campaigns, forcing you to compete with other underpaid workers and filling your work sites with underpaid contract workers.

But now, in the middle of a national crisis without parallel, it seems people, and the media, have changed their tune. You’re not just workers, you’re front line workers. People are beginning to recognize that these essential workers are what keeps this country together.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. You’d think that Republicans and Democrats would band together to make sure that these essential workers stay safe — after all, where would we be without them? But that isn’t the case. It seems that mid-level managers, Amazon warehouses, Walmart, jails and national, state and county parks are doing as much as possible to make it clear that for these essential employees, despite a global pandemic, it is business as usual on the work sites.

So, yes, you have a choice: show up to work so you can pay your bills, or stay home and (if you’re lucky) get paid leave from the federal government. Of course, if you test positive, you don’t have a choice. Use what’s left of your sick leave; then you’re on your own. If you’re non-essential, the governor wants you to stay home. But if you’re essential, you are still expected to cram into elevators, make arrests, deliver packages, work heavy equipment, cut grass and do whatever else we can’t do without.

It’s easy to accept this as the way things are. Don’t. Because if you do, the moment this is over, you’re going to be the first on the chopping block as the recession kicks in. The $1,200 check from the federal government will be used up, the 80 hours of sick leave (if it ever applied to you, which is a big if), will be a thing of the past, a favor granted.

Union busting will be back on track, the budget cuts will move into action, the politicians who were singing your praises will began bean counting, and, suddenly, you won’t be essential anymore. In fact, you may find that you’ve become the problem. If you’re in a union, you’ll have a fight on your hands. If you’re not, it may be time to think of starting one.

But we're in real time now. So here’s a word of advice: if you’re essential — when you are scrubbing down empty offices or repairing broken water mains — make sure your employers treat you like you’re essential. Ask if they're following the guidelines for social distancing. Ask them what happens if you get sick. And if they can’t answer, stay home. They need you. Maryland needs you. It’s time they treated you that way.

John Barry (jrbarry2014@gmail.com) is a union organizer.

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