What COVID-19 Has Shown Us About Our Frontline

If there’s one thing COVID-19 has taught us, it is that our lives depend on frontline workers. The unsung heroes of most everyone’s lives in the U.S. have always been the people who sell us groceries, work in restaurants, stock the shelves and deliver packages. The difference is that now, we’re beginning to notice just how vital they are for the first time. 

What exactly is a frontline worker? Definitions may vary, but we define frontline workers as individuals who:

  • support or are directly involved in the production, handling, distribution and selling of a product or service and have interactions with the customer.
  • must be present to do the job (it cannot be done remotely), and 
  • perform a job that may or may not  require a 4-year college degree

Traditionally, these are among the jobs and workers that have been considered less celebrated careers.  These roles play a distinctly second-tier role to white collared jobs in American society. Especially in service industries, they are among the worst-paying jobs there are: salaries for retail salespersons, postal service mail carriers, light truck drivers, cashiers, janitors, and cleaners average 18% less than salaries in other industries nationwide, and in some areas of the country they are as much as 50% less. These same workers are often treated as expendable by their employers, excluded from career development opportunities and offered few or no benefits or “perks.” Many are subject to work schedules that change randomly from week to week. Some have to deal regularly with abusive customers. 

And yet, these are the workers that keep the engine of everyday life going. When COVID-19 hit, the majority of  workers, in office jobs, were able to take their work home with them, continuing to work in the safety of quarantine. Frontline workers, on the other hand, generally met one of two fates. Either their work was considered essential, and they were required to continue doing it, despite potential danger to themselves and their families, or they weren’t—and they were laid off. Millions of restaurant, travel and hospitality, personal care workers and the like lost their jobs. Yet they were the envy of some grocery and dollar store workers, meat-packers, and others—because those workers had to continue working in dangerous conditions, often facing new child care problems and commuting challenges, while earning less than their counterparts were able to collect—at least for a while—in unemployment. 

The pandemic has brought one bit of good news for frontline workers, though. For the first time, in many cases, they have begun to be recognized and appreciated for the vital work they do. Terms like “service worker” and “blue collar” have been largely replaced with “frontline worker” and “essential worker.” Traditional and social media alike are filled with accolades, and customers are encouraged to thank them more concretely in the form of generous tips. Leaders have proposed new policies to increase their wages. Workers and consumers are organizing formal or informal boycotts against companies considered to mistreat them, such as the Amazon and Instacart boycott in May.

If some small victory can be snatched from the horrific jaws of COVID-19, let it be that some of America’s most important workers are finally recognized. It’s time to throw aside the snobbery that pits college-educated workers against non-college educated, and office jobs against retail and service jobs. It’s time to treat frontline workers with not only respect, but fairness. Frontline workers deserve decent pay and benefits. They deserve safe working conditions and predictable scheduling. They deserve opportunities to turn their jobs into fulfilling careers, if they choose to do so. They deserve our respect and thanks for continuing to keep our economy humming.  It’s the least we can do for those who are out there risking their lives everyday.