Has America already reached its limit on celebrating essential workers?
Heroes work here. I see those words everywhere when I take my cabin-fever-alleviating walks around Queens, the epicenter of America's epicenter. The signs hang on the fences of assisted living facilities, on the doors to hospitals, and, though they're lacking in my grocery store's windows, they wouldn't be out of place there either.
In the past month, New Yorkers have celebrated the essential workers that keep America's largest metropolis functioning — not only the doctors and nurses on the front lines, but the transit employees who are dying at alarmingly high rates, the grocery store clerks who ring you up behind plexiglass shields, the janitors and sanitation staff who do invisible work without proper PPE. We have had multiple airplane flyovers in celebration, light show tributes on the Empire State Building and, most memorable of all, we observe a nightly five-borough-wide applause of gratitude and thanks. But as the country begins to slowly — and, experts say, unwisely — reopen, the essential workers we've spent weeks valorizing as selfless heroes are now at risk of fading once more into the background.
What is the lifespan of a hero? Americans may soon have an answer. This week, the largest U.S. grocery store chain, Kroger — which had extended employees a $2 raise in hourly earnings called the "hero bonus" at the beginning of the pandemic — announced that the extra money would end on May 17, though its employees are not any less at risk of infection. Starbucks, likewise, is ending its $3 raises to employees at the end of the month, as is Target, which gave its workers a $2 raise for risking their lives to show up for their jobs. "With all eyes on essential workers during the pandemic, grocery corporations were quick to capitalize on the good PR of raising wages, but they cannot justify taking them away, especially since they have continued to do business while so many other businesses are closed and their profits are record high," John Grant, the president of UFCW Local 770, told the Los Angeles Times in a statement.
Ask many essential workers, and they'll tell you even their new national label of "hero" rings of hollow PR. "I'm grateful to be acknowledged for the risky work we're doing," wrote grocery store employee Karleigh Frisbie Brogan in The Atlantic last month, adding, "but I have a problem with all this hero talk. It's a pernicious label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something — money, goods, a clean conscience — from my jeopardization." In Eater on Tuesday, L.A.-based writer and waitress Sara Selevitch likewise described the "un-heroic reality of being an 'essential' restaurant worker," from the lack of tips to ungracious customer complaints, as well as glaring neglect from the government, which is letting small restaurants flounder, and the lack of established hazard pay. That's not to even mention undocumented Americans, who fear for their health at work but must continue to show up, since they typically can't collect unemployment or receive a stimulus check.
Coming in from across New York are anecdotal reports that the nightly 7 p.m. clap of appreciation for workers is tapering off as people lose interest (though that hasn't been true yet in my neighborhood). While the clap was always going to fade out eventually, it's startling to see it go when there is still a very real danger. In some instances, attitudes toward essential workers have even turned aggressive: "There are many reasons that an employee could potentially be eligible for unemployment. Feeling unsafe in the workplace is not one," Kersha Cartwright, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Labor, told Politico recently, despite even President Trump criticizing the state for reopening "too soon." While so-called "liberation" protests across the country have made calls for things like haircuts to resume, the demands are issued with a lack of empathy toward the people whose job and health are at risk to keep the irate serviced and well-groomed.
Even as doctors and nurses have imperiled their mental and physical wellbeing to care for COVID-19 patients, a general lack of respect for medical science betrays the superficiality of all the heartwarming signs and tributes. If health-care professionals were considered heroes and respected as such, there'd be an emphasis on listening to medical experts, who warn that the country is nowhere near ready to go back to normal, as well as widespread urgency to mitigate the number of dead and dying who will end up in their hands if a second wave of the virus breaks out.
Perhaps the fickle attention of the American public shouldn't come as a surprise. Many of these industries have long been exploited by the rest of us for our comfort, convenience, and ease. Some 75 percent of essential workers in New York are non-white, WNYC reports, a statistic that is echoed in the demographic disparities of the death tolls. To really acknowledge a grocery worker or restaurant delivery person requires looking unblinkingly at our own complacency as consumers and as a nation. While House Democrats have penned a $3 trillion — what else? — "HEROES Act" with $200 billion set aside as a "Heroes Fund" to give front-line workers a raise, it is unlikely to pass the GOP-held Senate, CNBC reports. Otherwise there is little sign of additional help coming, especially for employees of places like the country's hard-hit meatpacking plants. "They have so much money and so much knowledge of everything," Crystal Rodriguez, whose father likely caught COVID-19 at the meat processing factory where he worked, told Mother Jones. "Why didn't they help protect us?"
Maybe because heroes last only as long as they serve a purpose. For years after 9/11, it was taboo to criticize the troops as our interminable war stretched on. Captain Sully, a portrait of aspirational white, male, American heroism, got a movie and portrayal by Tom Hanks. But who will tell the story of the essential workers of the coronavirus pandemic? Perhaps no one. For a few weeks, the heroes got a pat on the back, signs in some windows, an airshow or two. But as the pandemic rages on, they may soon, once again, be relegated to a quick, thoughtless glance out of the corner of our eyes before we look away.
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