They’ve been systematically devalued for years. But they don’t have to be.
So why are so many of these workers making poverty wages? How can work worth so much be worth so little? Over the past few weeks, I asked economists and labor experts that question. The answer was discomfiting: These essential jobs are bad jobs not because of ironclad economic laws, but because of the kinds of people who hold them and the kinds of labor laws we have chosen. They are bad jobs because we have not cared to make them good jobs. But there’s some comfort in that: We can choose to care.
The need for change has long been apparent. Before the pandemic, many essential workers were just getting by. Now their jobs are more dangerous than before, and many cannot afford to quit, not with the unemployment rate at nearly 15 percent. One in seven essential workers lacks health insurance, and one in three lives in a household that makes less than $40,000 a year. Millions of grocery-store workers and slaughterhouse employees and home health aides rely on food stamps. Our most essential, most useful, and most needed people are our most economically fragile.
Simple economic concepts, such as supply and demand, certainly help explain these dynamics. These positions tend to require relatively few educational credentials or certifications. The skills necessary to work at a checkout counter or change sheets in a hospital tend to be easy to pick up and nontechnical. This means that the pool of eligible workers is large, and it’s easy for employers to hire and fire. You don’t face a high barrier to entry if you’re looking for a job as a line cook or a nanny. And replacing you is not hard, if you quit or get laid off.
Still, this fact does not in and of itself consign essential jobs to being bad jobs, labor experts stressed. No fundamental principle of economics requires burger flippers to make $7.25 an hour. “The Econ 101 argument is that workers are paid on the marginal productivity of their labor,” Darrick Hamilton, an economist and the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, said. But that is too simplistic.