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Some of our most undervalued workers now among our most valuable as pandemic forces rethink of what jobs are critical

March 20, 2020

3-minute read

In any public emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic, society naturally turns to tried-and-true public service professionals for advice, protection and care.

First and foremost, we depend on health-care workers risking their own well-being to care for the ill — even in chaotic and overcrowded conditions. Other first responders provide emergency assistance. Utility workers keep the lights on, the water flowing, the mail delivered and the garbage collected.

These jobs are critically important. These workers can’t take leave. They can’t work from home.

Not coincidentally, most of these jobs are in the public sector: underwritten by government to provide essential functions, no matter what. And as public sector workers, they’ve been subject to years of austerity and enmity — derided for their wages, their pensions, even their sick leave. Suddenly we are reminded our lives depend on them.

But COVID-19 is also highlighting how much we depend on a whole constellation of other, more humble occupations. Millions of so-called “low skill” workers are also indispensable to our well-being, possibly even our survival. And unlike those of us who can work from home and make other adjustments to survive the lockdown, these workers can’t. They have to keep working: both to earn income (most wouldn’t even qualify for Employment Insurance), and to serve us.

And even more than essential public service jobs, their jobs have been ruthlessly downgraded for many years. Wages have been cut, hours are uncertain. Many were reconstituted as “independent” entrepreneurs — mostly so employers can evade normal legal and fiscal obligations like minimum wages, vacations and sick pay. As a result, these workers endure an insecure and vulnerable existence. But now the rest of society needs them — desperately.

Indeed, the precarious insecurity of these supposedly “menial” jobs now poses major risks to the rest of society. People who keep working when they should be at home pose a public health menace — but that’s exactly what will happen if insecure workers are denied income support, forced to choose between their own survival and social responsibility.

Here are just some of the most undervalued workers in our economy. They’ve been subjected to endless precarity and poverty wages, but their dedication will be critical to our capacity to get through the weeks ahead.

Cleaners: Doing their work well saves lives. Yet cleaners have been outsourced, underpaid and in many cases nonsensically forced to become independent “businesses.” Scientific research has shown that training, credentials and job stability for cleaners produce safer hospitals, schools and public spaces.

Cashiers: While shoppers duke it out over the last rolls of toilet paper, spare a thought for the poor cashiers. Detailed U.S. job analysis shows cashiers are the largest single occupational grouping with elevated risk of on-the-job infection because of the number of people they face every day. Yet we need them to keep working through the lockdown, because we still need to buy food.

Child-care workers: With schools closing for weeks or months, child care will be critical to allow parents to eventually get back to their own jobs. Safely caring for kids anytime (including during a pandemic) is not “babysitting.” It’s a high-skill profession, and should be valued like one.

Servers: Restaurants and bars now face restrictions or partial closure, but we’ll still buy a lot of takeout. Food service workers actually perform a vital service. Better training, higher health standards, more stable jobs and living wages would allow them to do it more safely.

Delivery drivers: It’s painfully ironic that many plan on surviving self-isolation simply by ordering in. We expect people without sick pay themselves to bring us our meals and supplies. Similarly, most of the drivers restocking stores with food (and toilet paper) have been outsourced and deunionized, their wages cut to the bone.

We need all these people to keep working, even as the rest of us learn social distancing. We should be grateful for their dedication and skill.

More importantly, this crisis should spur Canadians to rethink how we value and protect all work — and the people who do it. Even these most modest and badly paid jobs in our workforce are vital to our collective survival. So as we work through the difficult times ahead, let’s also commit to fundamentally changing how we value and protect all work, especially the humblest jobs that turned out to be very important indeed.

Jim Stanford is an economist and director of the Centre for Future Work and sits on the Members' Council of the CCPA. This column also appeared in the Toronto Star on March 19. 

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