The Essential Workers Project

A collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and
the University of Colorado Boulder’s Masters of the Environment program

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines shuttered non-essential businesses, threw many non-essential workers into furlough or unemployment, and sent others home to perform their work.  However, as business districts and commuter highways emptied, essential workers are still venturing out and reporting for duty.  They are faced with “business as usual” in a time that is anything but.

COVID-19 has forced governments around the United States and across the globe to state the obvious – some workers in our society are seen as essential, others are not.  Medical providers, police officers, sanitation workers, transportation workers, food chain workers – these are the people we rely upon always and need more than ever when faced with disaster, especially a pandemic.

The irony is that many essential workers are not ordinarily treated as such. Many categories of essential workers generally earn low wages, receive few benefits, have negligible financial security, and have, at best, a limited political voice. In other words, essential workers are, too often, undervalued and socially marginalized.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers are assuming personal risks for the common good.  When they show up and do their jobs – sometimes without adequate protections in the workplace –  essential workers are risking a serious or even fatal COVID-19 infection.

How We Can Protect Essential Workers

Protecting essential workers – and, in turn, protecting ourselves —  begins with providing adequate protections and precautions in the workplace.  At a minimum, they need  access to PPE and to environmental and social controls that reduce their risks of viral exposure. They also need safe places for their children and dependents while they are at work.  But the necessary protections don’t end there. They also need terms of employment that reduce rather than increase their risks. For example, they need paid sick leave, permission to take time off when they have or suspect they may have COVID-19, and freedom from retaliation when they raise safety concerns.  Furthermore, many essential workers also face non-workplace hazards related to housing, childcare, transportation, food securty, and healthcare access that need to be identified and remedied. For example, they may need access to safe out-of-home group childcare or low-density housing to support preventative isolation and decrease their family’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Baseline Vulnerabilities of Essential Workers in the Age of COVID-19

But there’s more to the story of essential workers.  Many of these groups of workers experienced significant disadvantages prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.  Many are poorly paid.  Some have limited or no access to health care, live within inadequate housing, and are subject to inadequate pay and financial instability.  Many are members of immigrant communities and racial groups who experience systemic social and economic disadvantage.

These background factors and vulnerabilities leave these workers especially vulnerable during the current pandemic and amplify the risks that they face when they attempt to do job that benefit us all. For example, many farmworkers live together in substandard housing and travel long distances to remote worksites in tightly packed vehicles. Many have poor health, and their workplace exposes them to dangerous materials (e.g. agrochemicals) that result in high rates of respiratory illness in this population. Finally, some are ineligible, because of immigration status, to receive COVID-19 economic aid and social services.

A Moral Awakening to Essential Workers

If we want to keep our essential health care, food, sanitation, transportation, and emergency services systems strong during this pandemic, then we need to protect the workers who are essential to the functioning of those systems.

We need to ask ourselves, is it right to inflict such risk upon them so that we can stay at home? And is it smart to allow essential workers to continue to do their work under conditions that put us all at risk?

The low pay, poor benefits, and social marginalization of many essential workers also send a message of not respecting the dignity of their efforts, yet another reason why how we treat essential workers is a moral issue and a social justice issue. During the current pandemic, we are being provided with more clarity about their situation and the opportunity for us to recognize and act upon our collective obigations toward essential workers.

So, we are faced with an important moral question: What is owed to the people who perform essential work?   Moreover, how do we work toward a reality where these workers are no longer living on the margins of society and treated equitably?

The COVID-19 pandemic, as terrible as it is, is an opportunity to set things right.  That includes our treatment of essential workers.

Imagine what would happen if they didn’t shoulder this burden on our behalf:
  • If farmworkers don’t show up, fruits and vegetables will go unharvested, extending the temporary supply dysfunction experienced this spring into many lean months ahead.
  • If grocery clerks don’t show up, most of us would be unable to access food to sustain ourselves and our families.
  • If sanitation workers don’t show up, our neighborhoods would be burdened with trash, making for a breeding ground for plagues and pathogens..
  • If nurses don’t show up, our loved ones would suffer and perhaps even die entirely alone.

In many cases, we literally owe essential workers our lives. Because our well-being depends upon them, we must now become more aware of the inherent vulnerabilities they face. We must do the essential work of protecting at-risk essential workers.