(opinions) essential workers

Virginia Tech students wait in line to place their order at the Seven70 Deli, a restaurant inside the West End Market dining hall, Sept. 23, 2018.

Essential workers, particularly those working in customer service, have often been the casual target of unpleasant, entitled behavior — and this was before their job title became a well-known phrase. Nearly a year has passed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so by now we are all profoundly aware of the risks essential workers assume every day they are at work. Now, customer unpleasantness should be considered downright malicious. 

“Essential” became a heavily used term and key concept at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the country was deciding who could go home from work and who needed to stay. Low-wage workers, like cashiers, needed to stay — while severely underappreciated by many, they were nevertheless deemed essential. 

To suggest that some good may have come from the pandemic while thousands of people continue to suffer might seem tone-deaf and insensitive. That said, the pandemic-sparked label of “essential” awakened the average person to the fact that our society would be unable to function without the continued efforts of minimum-wage workers. This sparked huge displays of gratitude.

Although the general perception of minimum wage workers has changed for the better, mask requirements have prompted a sizable sector of people to be more contemptible than usual, flashing uncovered faces and vicious privilege. However, in response to these affronts, people have emerged in droves to defend essential workers, in protests or online. Whichever way you look at it, essential workers have never been so talked about — and the rhetoric has been largely positive.

Unprecedented trauma seemingly begets compassion. It would be wonderful if we can still manage empathy for one another, in addition to empathy for essential workers, when things return to normal. 

Throughout the fall 2020 semester at Virginia Tech, most students stepped up and exhibited empathy by following the school’s policies put in place to prevent school employee exposure to the virus. 

The threat of the pandemic necessitated operational changes to many facets of Virginia Tech life, and the dining areas were not exempt. Going to the dining areas has become a new experience entirely, which starkly contrasts with the bustling epicenters they were before. 

DX and D2 Student General Manager Daniel Slutsky helped oversee these changes; he also monitored students’ observance of the new health regulations. 

“Overall, everybody’s actually been very good about it,” Slutsky said. “The only time I’ve ever had to mention anything to anyone was at the beginning (of the semester) when people would forget their masks and that kind of stuff.” 

It is commendable that for a school this size, there have been few notable instances of flagrant disregard for the new rules. Beyond the Virginia Tech bubble, however, the same cannot be said. This proves problematic because, for essential workers, a customer’s willingness to comply with established health regulations can determine whether they contract a disease.  

Many customers walk into essential businesses and fail to remember that they are largely responsible for workers’ health. All-consumed by a fervent desire for their morning coffee, they march into establishments with masks hanging off one ear doing very little to protect the health of those who serve them. 

We should always remember who we have to thank for that morning coffee or that Owen’s quesadilla. Essential workers have always been the key to a functioning society; it is important that we continuously appreciate this, not just when their lives are at risk and we’re hunkering down during a pandemic.

These good people did not set out to become America’s martyrs. Many had no choice but to work in low-paying, high-risk jobs to support their families during this time of high unemployment and economic recession. Kind words uttered by thankful employers, public figures and many more do not remotely compare to the invaluable concrete measures that our government and employers could take to not only prove their gratitude, but also their decency.   

For years, Virginia Tech dining services have sought out new student employees by advertising their semesterly pay raises. These have been done away with completely. Not only are students working harder than ever with more risks than ever before — they are also getting paid less than they would during a pandemic-free semester. 

“I understand that financially it is more cost-effective for dining services to do away with the raises in these uncertain times,” said former dining services employee Jessica Melvin. “However, students are also facing financial burdens, and many may be relying on dining services as their primary source of income right now.”

In September, the school began to randomly test a “statistically significant sample” of students for COVID-19. Evidently, there are obstacles preventing Virginia Tech from regularly testing everybody on campus; but, at the very least, there should be a concerted effort to consistently test every essential worker on campus. 

“I know there’s random testing going on for students,” said Slutsky. “I would like to see that maybe not be so random, so every week or every two weeks, everybody gets tested.”

Fortunately, every non-student dining services employee who is paid a salary wage gets tested weekly or biweekly by the school for COVID-19. Student dining services employees are not granted regular access to testing, but must rely on the same sporadic testing offered to every Virginia Tech student. 

“That’s how it is for salary employees,” Stutsky said. “If (regular testing) can’t happen for the student body, it should at least happen for student employees.” 

Better pay and regular testing are not only sorely lacking for Virginia Tech workers, but for essential workers everywhere. This pandemic has shown that essential workers deserve much higher compensation than the minimum wage; for this to happen, we need help from our elected officials.

Our government should ensure that all employers provide their essential workers with the equivalent of hazard pay. While there was a push back in April from the U.S. House of Representatives for the (widely popular) passing of a $200 billion hazard pay bill, any companies who were offering their employers temporary pay raises or hazard pay bonuses have largely stopped altogether. The bill was never passed; in fact, it was dropped from the new relief bill proposed back in September and was not even considered for the newest legislative proposal passed in December.

So, while COVID-19 has seemingly been successful in highlighting the central importance of essential workers, this alone cannot be considered acceptable compensation for their daily sacrifices. Ensuring workers are compensated by increasing their pay would be an appropriate way to convey our Nation’s gratitude. This goes for Virginia Tech workers as well: semesterly pay raises should be brought back, as they have been earned now more than ever before. 

There needs to be structural change and a genuine effort to better the lives of the essential workers who make our daily lives possible. Stepping in when our friends, family members or fellow customers act unkindly toward a worker, as well as evaluating our own habits, would certainly be a step in the right direction. Tipping workers generously if you have the means could go a long way. Still, lobbying our government to make systematic changes should be our ultimate objective.