Gratitude and rage are my constant companions these days.
Since this pandemic began highlighting both my own privilege and the deadly consequences of government neglect, the three of us have been going everywhere together.
Earlier this week, we visited the grocery store, where we were attended by workers who have recently joined the pantheon of American heroes.
As we fortunate work-from-homers waited in line for the security guard to usher us into the store, young workers in masks and gloves chased errant carts, spraying them down before wheeling them back inside. There, clerks piled up beets and sweet potatoes, or stacked shelves with cans and — whoa! — a little toilet paper (it lasted two minutes). At the checkouts, there were plexiglass screens and tape on the floor, to remind customers to keep their distance.
Workers are better protected this week than they were early in the coronavirus siege. On Tuesday, the state issued guidelines requiring that all stores impose measures some already had in place, like limiting the number of customers who can be inside at a time, and making sure those waiting outside are safely distant from each other.
But it’s impossible to maintain distance all the time. Grocery store workers are coming into proximity with hundreds of people each week. They’re taking immense, first-responder-level risks they never signed up for.
And for which they are definitely not being paid enough. Sure, some stores have increased hourly rates; several states, including Massachusetts, have given essential workers like these access to emergency child care; some stores are giving workers placed in quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19 an additional two weeks of paid sick time.
Great. But, for many grocery store workers, a temporary bump to $15 an hour isn’t enough to get their heads above water — not if they have kids to feed, and Metro-Boston housing costs. Even in the best of times, plenty of supermarket employees are among the low-wage workers who must rely on food stamps and other assistance to make ends meet.
But at least more people are seeing them in this moment, since they’re working to get suddenly precious food to those still lucky enough to afford it. They’re clearly doing it largely because they feel have no choice, though it’s more comforting to see it purely as bravery.
Every blue-collar worker knows what it’s like to be invisible, how it feels when customers make assumptions about their intelligence and their worth, and conclude it’s OK to take their labor for granted. Our economic policies have been built on those assumptions for decades. And Lord, are those policies hitting the fan right now.
Back in the days of Great America — the one the president and his acolytes profess to miss so much — more workers were treated with dignity. The notion of shared prosperity excluded women and workers of color for the most part, but it meant more security for many others.
“Henry Ford believed his workers should be able to afford the product they made, and that was the reason to give them a living wage,” said Megan Tobias Neely, a sociologist at Stanford University who studies finance and inequality. But since the 1970s, she said, corporations’ zealous focus shifted to maximizing shareholder value. Lower labor costs and more meager benefits serve that selfish goal well. And they have brought us to this appalling chasm between financial bigs and the workers who fuel their obscene incomes.
How would the richest country on the planet treat supermarket employees and other low-wage workers if we continued to venerate them as much after this pandemic as we do in its midst? If we kept the gratitude, and decided to do something about the enraging stuff?
Those workers would get higher wages and better sick leave, for starters. They’d have access to affordable health care. They’d be able to afford child care and parental leave. We’d see them as a key to this nation’s prosperity, and not a drag on it. And we’d definitely make it easier for them to vote.
That can happen only if this country remembers how much those working the dairy aisles and checkouts mean to us right now — and ignore those, including the president, who desperately want us to forget.