Essential work
Workers at New Leaf, Safeway and other important businesses continue to provide services despite their own health concerns. Review file photo

Crisis has a way of stripping off all that is extraneous and leaving us with what is essential. Boy, are we learning that now.

It turns out some of us aren’t nearly as essential to a functioning society as we might have thought. And others among us are much more important to civilization that we have ever imagined. We say that with tongue in cheek, but in the wake of a devastating global outbreak of novel coronavirus and a shelter-in-place order throughout the Golden State and beyond, the time has come to reconsider some fundamental truths about the nature of employment, compensation and the worth of individuals to the greater good.

Consider the 21 exemptions to the San Mateo County shelter in place order found in Section 10, subparagraph F. What you won’t find there are stars of the NBA, CEOs, MBAs, movie moguls, Instagram influencers or tech trillionaires. Kim Kardashian isn’t listed. Neither are any of television’s housewives. Partisan politicians? Not listed. Middle managers? Not on the list.

What you will find are categories of people who are the true unsung heroes of our economy year round, regardless of weather, viral outbreak or calamity of any kind.

Delivery people of most kinds are deemed too important to lock down for their own safety and the safety of others. Without them more of us would be on the streets. We wouldn’t get medicines and mail, toilet paper and tandoori chicken.

Home-care workers are called essential in the order. So, too, are childcare professionals. Healthcare workers, obviously, are allowed and encouraged to work in this crisis. Farmers and fishermen must continue to work. Those in newspapers and other media outlets are expected to continue to do their jobs.

Interestingly, many (but not all) of the exemptions are for relatively low-paid work that many of us wouldn’t consider doing. Gas station attendants, exterminators, laundry workers. If they are so essential in times of great crisis, why are they so poorly remunerated throughout the year?

That is a good question for another time. Here’s guessing it will not be asked when we are once again free and easy. Sports heroes will continue to command kingly sums. Captains of capitalism will bask in the sun. And essential workers — enumerated in 21 lines of what will then be a forgotten government document — will clean their toilets and wash their clothes for money our heroes wouldn’t bother to pick up off the ground.

We are all essential. We have families, passions and worth. We would never mean to suggest otherwise. Today, though, please acknowledge an essential worker. They are the backbone of our society.

— Clay Lambert

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