Essential Worker Does Not Equal Valued Worker

It took the pandemic for many of us to broaden our definition of essential worker and to see that those we tout as “essential” to the functioning backbone of our country are not financially valued. We compensate many essential workers poorly. They are paid minimum wage, not a livable wage. Today an employee working 40 hours a week making the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour earns $15,080 in a year. Last year the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that minimum wage workers couldn’t rent a two-bedroom apartment, at market rate, in any state in the United States. That’s a harsh reality and it’s daily life for many Americans. According to the Economic Policy Institute, perhaps not surprisingly, workers of color are more likely than white workers to earn what they label poverty wages.

The fact that things change but stay the same was driven home to me last month when I took a tour in Colonial Williamsburg.

Like many historical spots in our country, Colonial Williamsburg is trying to better incorporate the lived experience of enslaved people into their representations. So, I was looking forward to a tour titled ‘Freedom’s Paradox’ focused on the institution of slavery in a fledgling nation fighting for freedom. I moved along with the group from one site to another, listening intently to the guides. My ears perked up when the guide portraying one of the landed gentry discussed the provision of food. “Enslaved people in Williamsburg were given two pounds of cornmeal and ½ lb. of meat a week even though they burned about 5000 calories a day working,” he told us. I had to do a quick Google search to learn this amount of food equaled about 4500 calories a week for people burning about 30,000 in a typical six-day workweek. A guide portraying an enslaved person continued: “Slaves caught stealing food for themselves or their children were punished severely. Sometimes by a public beating or even by death dependent on how egregious the theft was deemed.” That part of the tour concluded by noting that the House of Burgesses, the governing body of the Colony of Virginia, had set the standard of what amount of food should be provided… at a minimum.

Minimum wages.

That’s when it struck me: essential workers in the colonial era and those today, were and still are paid, in terms of what’s needed to exist, to barely survive, certainly not to thrive.  Those setting the standards, those governing, then and now, seem to have only nominal regard for people essential to their economic survival. And just as those enslaved in colonial times suffered from malnutrition, poverty wages continue to have long-term impact. Food deprivation and the reliance on cheap unhealthy foods have consequences even today, generations later, on the health status of African Americans. Similarly, the inability of many, then and now, to earn a livable wage — in money or in food — leads to a wage theft system with deleterious effects.

While we pay many who provide essential services minimum wage, most of those who shape the country’s laws and policies are entirely out of touch with that reality.  This was made crystal clear in 1992 when then-President George H. W. Bush, on national television, failed to know the cost of milk during a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. That incident spotlighted a disconnect, one that still exists between those living ordinary lives and many governing our country. Thirty years later, the nation debates the pros and cons of raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, as many local and state jurisdictions have done, while failing to recognize or acknowledge the impact of poverty wages on our society… on our country.

I wonder what ‘essential’ means to many of our leaders. Not just in government, in commerce too. When I hear the leaders of Fortune 500 companies proclaim ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I look to see if they have supported greater benefits for their workers, many of whom are African American, or a $15/hour minimum wage. Rarely do I find that level of commitment. Their bottom line—their profits—not racial equity, is their motivation. Many are “talking the talk,” but not “walking the walk.” So, while nominally celebrated in media posts, too many essential workers of today are viewed as having minimal value by today’s leaders just as the enslaved people were in the 1700s in Colonial America. Check it out when the next elected official or business leader announces support for racial equity.  Minimum wage, minimum value.  Let’s all support a livable wage, a wage for “essential workers” and all workers to thrive, not just survive.


The Power of One (to do Good or Bad)

Long ago, I was taught not to pay attention to any one person exhibiting racist behaviors. “They’re powerless,” I was told. “Focus instead on the systems that oppress, those societal structures preventing people of color from achieving.” And that’s what I’ve done . For years, I’ve ignored the individuals as I examined and discussed structural and systemic racism.

Now, I’m changing my thinking… a bit.

Singly, people exhibiting racist behaviors and shouting racial epithets, do have power. They can take my life or that of someone I love because of the color of our skin. Just think of Derek Chauvin and the man in Michigan who shot at a Black teen who was lost and approached his door to ask for directions. They had power.  Or think of those individuals who oversee systems, like local departments of education or land use and zoning commissions.  Some have lethal impact, others the power to shape how systems operate. They all have the power to influence.

What is a young child learning when their grandfather uses racist terms or racist tropes when talking about people of color? What are teens and even younger children learning about basic acceptance, or broader celebration, of people who look different from them when they hear messages of racial hatred or racially charged jokes at the neighborhood barbecue or at the softball game? What are they learning about whom to fear and who to trust, who is smart and who is lazy? What stereotypes are being reinforced? What values are being shaped? I’m talking about what is often referred to as observational learning or role modeling. The words and behaviors of adults have a powerful impact on the children and young people in their lives.

Our families, neighbors, teachers, and the many adults who form our community’s fabric shape who we are. They do so by what they do and say… and what they don’t do or don’t say. What situations are not discussed around your kitchen table? As the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolded on televisions and in newspapers, did your teenage children — who were bound to hear something about it — know what you felt about the incident and about the verdict? Do they know what you think as an increasing number of Asian Americans are assaulted? Incidents that happen in the light of day. Watched with inaction, or perhaps helplessness, or even guilt.

Racist ideas are seeded by the adults in young peoples’ lives, by those who believe in a racial hierarchy that places white people at the top of humanity. Those adults nurture and develop the notions, the seeds that they plant.  Sadly, the sin of omission also shapes values by what isn’t said or done by adults who claim they are liberal, unbiased, non-racists. Ibram Kendi has prompted my thinking in so many ways, particularly by proclaiming if you aren’t working against racism, you are a part of the problem. You are a racist.

A single person can be the spark that ignites the flame of racial injustice or lights the way for others to fight for change. Each of us decides what imprint we’re going to leave in the world.

I can no longer minimize the power of racist individuals.

Can You See It Now?


Some people have what might be called a significant vision problem. They don’t see/can’t see/won’t see structural racism or the inherent patriotism in fighting for racial justice.

Can You See It Now? is a short story that follows Paul White on a most unusual doctor’s appointment.

Get comfy.  Do you have your favorite beverage?  Ready to read? Here’s the link.  Please share with those who might benefit from seeing the world through a different lens.