April 9, 2020
Some people knew it before, but not enough. A lot more are learning to appreciate it now. Our world depends heavily on folks who are grievously underpaid: who work hard for their wages and who live in a precarious state of anxiety and financial uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. Yet they’re also the ones we rely upon today far more than ever.
Grocery clerks. Cleaning staff. Delivery men and women. Farmers. Cooks and food servers. Landscape laborers. Drivers. Truckers. That’s just of the kinds of wage workers whose efforts simply get covered over when an economy focuses on big industry, celebrity CEOS, entertainment idols, sports heroes and financial moguls. We lose touch with everyday life, mistake the lure of vast wealth as if it were a reasonable goal for all, and end up devaluing the hard work by which a society builds itself up materially.
The export overseas of whole classes of filthy, dirty exhausting manufacturing in textiles, metal and tool-making has enabled us to forget the extent to which it took brutal, often deadly labor to build up this and other developed Western countries. It’s as if we’ve all succumbed to the view that we’re all middle class, all white collar. Our mainstream political parties cater to that view, as do the bulk of print and broadcast journalism. But it’s a badly biased view, as if a matter too embarrassing to admit or focus on, and thus swept under the rug.
I’m not even dealing (yet) with the heroic efforts of nurses, EMTS, orderlies and doctors in this pandemic. Or the way in which homeschooling parents have newly discovered how hard and underpaid the work is that school teachers do. Those are subjects for future columns.
My point here is that the Corona Virus pandemic has exposed the precarious nature of life that millions of people endure. It’s reflective in the disproportionately high vulnerability to the illness faced by poor people and people of color. And yet the ability of this country to ride out the storm for the next few weeks and months depends entirely on the ability of those people to put their bodies and their health on the line to keep the rest of us going.
One of the things you learn from the hospitality industry is that the employees with the highest level of contact with guests are also the lowest paid. They are the frontline of the organization while the white collared business managers sit back and do their spread sheets and attend meetings. Suddenly, the whole country has become akin to a cruise ship, with underpaid employees scrambling to provide food, mail and packages and country so that the rest of the population can get by in a relatively “touchless” manner through Zoom, Instacart and Amazon Prime.
The new laboring classes in our economy are the ones who face the prospects of tactile exposure in their everyday life. I’m not sure how much tipping generously and thanking them profusely will compensate them for the risk they undertake.
The irony, of course, is that this class of service workers are themselves unable to afford to avail themselves of the services they provide. In this sense, they are like caddies at a posh country club or service staff at a 5-star resort. Welcome to the Covid-19 edition of “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
It’s all too easy to overlook the “precarity” of the American populace. The standard statistic that reveals a lot is that 40 percent of the population does not have $400 in savings available for an emergency.
That emergency has now struck. But it has not struck all of us in the same way. Like any crisis, this pandemic has exposed basic social fissures. In the process it has also revealed opportunities for creative transformation. We could start by acknowledging the dignity of basic labor and make that a step towards providing a modicum of health services to all Americans. Addressing the growing gap in income distribution would also be a major step in addressing the problem we face.
All of which entails some major rethinking of priorities. It also means recognizing the efforts that surround us on a daily basis, now more than ever.