This Covid 19 Pandemic has given us a new definition of and appreciation for “Non-essential” workers.

I grew up and lived in New England for many years. Whenever there would be some major weather event, we would hear an announcement telling all non-essential workers to stay home. At some subconscious level I wondered who these non-essential workers were and how did they know that they were non-essential. Presumably, it was not a personal issue. It was not the individual that was non-essential, it was the position. With the pandemic, we are hearing the term more frequently, so again I wondered, “Who are these non-essential people?” According to the 2013 Essential Service Act, the definition of an essential employee is someone that performs work involving the safety of human life and the protection of property. “The meaning generally applies to workers in law enforcement and public safety, food production, health care providers and emergency personnel, among others. As the pandemic continues to spread and states take tough measures to contain it, workers in other industries are being added to the list.”[1]

The list is growing as society and government realize that the old definition is vastly inadequate for meeting the needs of their citizens. Take a minute to read the article in the footnote to see what essential and non-essential workers mean today. Here is one you probably would not have considered. “In California, employees in the cannabis industry are deemed essential.”[2] When you look at what is happening, you quickly realize that the criteria for determining what is essential or non-essential are much more fluid today than they were a just couple of months ago.

Tragedies have a way of grabbing our attention and focusing the mind. The current pandemics is just such an event. Most of the world is sheltering at home, with the time to focus on what the pandemic means to us individually and collectively. Instinctively, humans seek to survive. It is the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy — physical safety. In pursuit of survival, we try to understand the threat and what we can do to combat it. The thing that appears to be the most effective defense is to isolate oneself. However, in the practical sense, we cannot do that. We all rely to some degree on other people to do what they do that allows individuals to isolate themselves. These people become the essential workers. And guess what. There are many more essential people than we used to think there were, and some of them are approaching heroic status. During this pandemic, there are many heroic essential people who put themselves at peril doing what are normally considered menial tasks. It does seem unfair that these heroes are not economically valued or compensated for their efforts. Some of these heroes are risking their lives working for just over minimum wage, and well below a livable wage. If their work is essential, shouldn’t their compensation be livable? Is their work any less essential when there is not a pandemic? No! It may be less risky, but it is probably just as essential.

Who are some of these unsung heroes? If the most effective way to avoid catching the virus is to shelter in place, then just about anyone who goes to work is increasing their risk. The virus is invisible. People can be infected and unknowingly carrying the virus and not show symptoms for days. A grocery store worker stocking shelves is potentially exposed in many ways. The virus may be contacted from the contaminated case of green beans they carry to the shelf. Or, they may catch it from the shoppers who deposited it as they went through the store. They are essential workers because without them, food cannot be distributed. The average pay for these people is around $15 per hour. That’s right, they are risking their lives for about $30,000 per year. Granted, they are not usually risking their lives as they stock shelves. But there is no such thing as ‘hazardous duty pay’ for stocking shelves during a pandemic, so they are taking one for the team. You could come up with countless other examples of these heroes.

If you are out in the world shopping or doing whatever you need to do, and you pass someone who is working to enable you to survive, take a moment to recognize their efforts and thank them.


[2] ibid

Allan is a lifetime educator with two daily goals. 1) learn something. 2) Make the world a better place.