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Essential workers have always deserved better

| Wednesday, April 1, 2020

I’ll admit, it’s been a real pain to transition to online classes and to keep up with ever-changing deadlines. I recently returned to my apartment in South Bend in an attempt to boost my productivity, but I’m not sure it’s had any effect. My parents are also working from home where they have to consistently hold loud, competing conference calls. I’m also sure I don’t have to tell any jobless seniors how difficult it’s been to get a response on any applications, as hiring isn’t really on the forefront of anyone’s mind right now.

So, it’s been a pain. But it’s also not lost on me how lucky I am to be able to do any of this. I have steady internet access, and I’m in the same timezone as my instructors. I also have two parents who are able to work from home and stay out of harm’s way. The same can’t be said of a lot of people right now, especially not those who have been deemed “essential workers.”

Shockingly, essential workers aren’t bankers, attorneys or airline CEOs. They’re food workers, truckers, cashiers and warehouse stockers. Nationally, the average salary for a food worker is $10.70 an hour. The average for a cashier is $9.81 an hour. These workers are usually paid minimum wage in their states, which can very drastically. In California, for example, minimum wage is $12 an hour, while Indiana has its minimum wage set at just $7.25. For people deemed so essential to the economy, it’s disturbing that we’ve gotten away with paying them so little for so long. The fate of our economy now rests on those whom we have seriously mistreated.

The last time we raised the minimum wage was in 2009 to $7.25 an hour. Today, the average paycheck has the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. Minimum wage has not been keeping up with day-to-day costs, and workers are suffering as a result. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that full time workers earning the federal minimum wage currently cannot afford to rent a two bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. Many low wage workers do not get healthcare through their job and certainly can’t afford to buy it on their incomes. 

At this point, we should be past the misleading idea that raising the minimum wage kills jobs, as multiple studies have disproved that theory. But, since this is America, that tired old refrain is repeatedly trotted out every time Congress attempts to pass a bill to help low-wage workers catch up to rising costs. The truth is, raising the minimum wage to a reasonable amount will not hurt the economy, and will actually lift 1.3 million people out of poverty.

Clearly, we could be doing much more for low wage workers. They need better pay, access to affordable healthcare, and a more robust social safety net. It has always been frustrating to see most conservatives in Congress consistently refuse to endorse these ideas, but this pandemic has laid bare the astounding hypocrisy that these workers have always known: that the very politicians who have decided they are undeserving of a livable wage also believe that they are utterly essential to the economy.

COVID-19 has proven that the world can go on without hedge fund managers and stockbrokers, but requires the nonstop toil of its most undervalued workers. It’s time we give them the respect they have always deserved, and that means more than a pithy tweet here and there. That means concrete, legislative action.

Thank all the essential workers today. Retweet an inspiring story about them. But most importantly, the next time you’re at a polling place, vote for the person who will actually fight for them.

Mary Szromba is a senior majoring in philosophy and political science, and she’s never been wrong about anything in her entire life. Questions, comments, and anonymous love letters can be directed to [email protected] or @_murrrrrr on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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