Essential Workers: The Lowest Paid And Lowest Status Among Us

Essential Workers: The Lowest Paid And Lowest Status Among Us September 1, 2020

Am just wondering: do you see the same pattern I see as I consider our essential workers? Effectively, they are the lowest paid and lowest status people around. Most have little job security; many are poorly treated by their far-better-paid bosses.

Garbage collectors: essential workers, protect us from ratsI am not essential to the well-being of the world. That’s been my fascinating insight from the last few months of Covid-life.

Who is essential? Let’s start with sanitation crews.

Who is essential? Well, very possibly the most critical workers are those who collect the mountains of trash we in the US manage to produce each day. Just one week’s disruption in that service and chaos reigns. With people working and schooling and cooking from home far more than usual, the amount of residential trash has soared.

The city of Philadelphia has faced this situation: “Since mid-July, the city has collected roughly 14,800 tons of trash a week from houses and small businesses, up from about 10,700 tons weekly a year earlier. . . . Staffing issues emerged in April and have persisted. About 30% of the staff is now out, he said—whether due to Covid-19 or other reasons—compared with 15% to 20% usually. The result: Trash and recycling languish curbside for days.”

Oh joy. Trash piled everywhere, odors growing, rats proliferating . . . and that invisible service suddenly looms as vitally important.

Who else have we discovered as essential? How about those whose job consists of cleaning the spaces we non-essential people would like to enter? Exposed to virus particles on every surface, rarely supplied with adequate protective gear, minimal pay, no sick days, and yet we could not function without them.

And then there are the school teachers. Yeah, just ask any parent who has discovered the long hours of toil necessary to keep their child up to grade level with nothing but Zoom and a few hastily copied worksheets. Truly, school teachers have made the most rapid of the dizzying rides to essentiality.

But there are others. I’m thinking delivery people. Every time a delivery truck stops at my house, I find myself in utterly grateful. Lets not forget those private drivers who deliver great meals cooked by another, well-hidden essential group: restaurant cooks. Good heavens–how could we manage without them?

Well, we could just all cook at home all the time, but that brings to mind another long list of essential workers. Shall we begin with the undocumented immigrants who labor under indescribably bad conditions for awful pay to make it possible for you and I to enjoy fresh produce? Except we couldn’t enjoy the produce if it were not for the truckers who transport the goods, and the stockers who get it off the trucks and onto the grocers’ shelves.

And, of course, as we are cooking at more at home, we generate more garbage which brings us back to the first set of essential workers: those who collect our mountains of discards.

I have not even touched on those who work in the medical fields. We do, of course, properly honor the many medical professionals who are in the front lines and who have taken a lot of health hits.

But what about all the hidden ones behind them? Those delivery people who get the PPE and meds to them? The factory workers who have taken on all sorts of extra work hours to re-tool and start churning out the products that our unpreparedness for this crisis made so valuable and so hard to obtain? And then, again, the hospital sanitation staff–their jobs boggle my mind with constant exposure to virus-laden stuff and air and nowhere near adequate protection. Or pay.

What about those who must inspect goods intended PPE but are defective fakes? Yes, we have inspectors sitting in hot and stuffy warehouses checking those things all the time, finding mountains of fakes that threaten lives if used. What would we do without them?

Observe the pattern: the most essential, the more oppressed and underpaid

Am just wondering: do you see the same pattern I see as I consider our essential workers? Effectively, they are the lowest paid and lowest status people around. Most have little job security; many are poorly treated by their far-better-paid bosses.

I have barely lifted a square inch of the coarse and barely breathable fabric, the invisibility cloak if you will, that blankets our most essential workers into obscurity, invisibility, and poverty. Were we to wander in those unlit spaces, shining flashlights on desperate faces, we would see that the vast majority of humankind resides here.

Who are the LEAST essential?

So, let’s look at the opposite end: who are the least essential people in our society? Hmmm . . . could it be the entertainers, the sports stars, the owners of sports franchises, the stock traders who have taken Wall Street to new highs while the numbers of suffering and dying people also grow to new highs?

Could it be the pharmaceutical companies who created wildly addictive opiates and made sure that they were so widely distributed that the addicted would keep their pockets full? Oh, and whose owners hoarded riches into the billions of dollars, riding on the backs of destroyed human beings?

Could it be the politicians who routinely ignore vital medical expertise and block essential actions to relieve the suffering of the least of these while instead spending most of their time figuring out how to get re-elected and continue to fatten their pockets off the government trough? And, by the way, covering their tracks with layers of lies so thickly entangled and filled with intentional dead ends that the best investigators make little headway

Could it be the advertisers whose job is to create a need where one does not actually exist? Like, for example, for drugs for made-up ailments and whose side effects mean the demand for more drugs to treat the resulting illnesses?

Are churches and clergy essential?

Having said all this, I want to ask this question: How essential are churches and the clergy who lead them?

For the most part, church buildings have been shuttered for the last six months. Services have moved online and, while better than nothing, also leave out much of the essence of gathered worship.

But these months of fear and isolation have taken a deep toll on the soul-health of most people in the world. Where would we be if those (again generally underpaid) clergy had not stayed faithful to their calls?

How much worse off would we have been had they not given careful attention to the especially vulnerable in their congregations? What if they had not made extra efforts to keep people fed and clothed, been available to go into hospitals, and comfort the dying even as everyone else was being turned away? What would have happened without their creativity, their passion for the redemptive movement of God in the midst of growing tragedy on every level?

From what I’ve been able to discern, the hard work and willingness to step courageously into an online environment with all the concomitant learning curves and false starts and mistakes have made the gospel more accessible to more people. As hospital workers stepped into the gap and worked in unfamiliar and tragically difficult situations, so did those whose job it is to care for our souls.

My own “unessential” state

I admit it is not exactly flattering to classify myself, now a retired clergy person, as a non-essential person. Yet, I find freedom in admitting this. I hope that this whole coronavirus mess will help us do a necessary “re-set” of priorities of the way we treat those who occupy the bottom rungs of our society, both in status and in economic resources.

Possibly, we “non-essentials” likely have some of the power necessary to bring about that re-set. It’s time to fight for living wages for all, good and affordable health care, better housing, and transportation options to preserve the health and well-being of those essential workers.

Truly, the health of us “non-essentials” stands firmly on the health of the essentials. The worse we treat them, the worse off all of us are.

It is time for the invisible to become visible. Let’s take off the oppressive cloak and let the light shine in.

Photo Credits:

Photo 117044675 © Chanawat

Photo 186453327 ©

Photo 180236824 © Volodymyr modified by Christy Thomas


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