Hard work should not be its only reward: an ode to the essential worker

I ran across the parking lot frantically waving my arms as the steam from my breath exited through the sides of my facemask like an old school steam locomotive.

Unfortunately, the modern day diesel electric locomotive not 60 feet away from me pulled out of the station anyhow.

I looked at my watch, it read 3:22 p.m. The train was scheduled to leave at 3:21, and it had. A train that was completely empty except for the ticket taker. There would have been one rider had they waited one extra minute, but apparently schedules are more important than ridership. The engineer did sound the horn, which seemed to be more out of spite than anything else, because the only person there to hear it was the one passenger they left steaming on the platform.

I haven’t taken the bus in years. But that missed train, a car repair and a lockdown can force one to do many a new thing. A forty minute wait for a rideshare vs. a two block walk, a $2 fare, and a stop within 200 yards of my house was a pretty easy decision to make.

The bus was by no means full, making social distancing pretty easy. And it soon became apparent that many of the people on the bus, took it every day, possibly even at the exact same time.

“How are you?” asked the bus driver, at almost every stop. The people he greeted didn’t look like holiday shoppers, there were no store branded handled bags, and many of them wore the black and white uniform of the restaurant employee, or the casual stretch pant of the maid service, or the heavy boots of the manual laborer.

We often hear about our “front line workers” and our “first responders” as the heroes of this pandemic. And they certainly do deserve our appreciation. But what about our “essential workers?” You know, the ones who aren’t making $80,000 a year, don’t have union protections, quality health insurance or pension plans. What about them?

“Good morning,” said the bundled up man nodding to the bundled up woman standing at the bus station when I got off. To even a stranger it was obvious that they knew each other. It was also obvious, that they didn’t know each other well. Two essential workers passing in the night, or in the middle of the afternoon, as it were.

I was chuckling to myself when the bundled up man turned to me.

“Jeff?” he said.

He was a prep cook that I used to work with, and he was now taking the bus to his second job, a job deemed absolutely “essential,” yet one that barely paid more than minimum wage.

In many cases our “essential workers” are the ones most taken for granted. They are the people who can’t not work. And in most cases the work they do is quite hard. For them there is no working from home, there are no Zoom conferences, and no unemployment. To put a face on it, they are the employees dealing with hundreds of customers a day at your local fast food drive through. They are the cooks preparing and bagging up your ToGo food at your favorite local restaraunt. They are the clerks at your local grocery store and the gang at your local hardware store. They don’t have time to be whining online about their right not to wear a mask, because they are too busy putting theirs on, taking two busses to get to just one of their jobs, and doing a job that while deemed “essential” is very often not appreciated.

I have often heard people decry minimum wage employees as “lazy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, just to survive on minimum wage, especially around here, one would have to work two full time, or close to full time jobs. And I bet neither of those jobs is easy.

Dishwashers, hotel maids, sanitary cleanup crews, none of those jobs are glamorous, nor are they particularly safe. Cleaning up potential Covid infection points? How could it be? Yet, someone has to do them. And quite often, just the process of getting to one of those jobs would prevent most people from taking them.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-The hardest work is often the lowest paying

-Often the people complaining the loudest are the ones doing the least.

-“Without labor, nothing prospers,” once opined the philosopher Sophocles.

-Thank you to all the essential workers out there, one can only imagine where we’d be without you.

-However, there is one time sensitive essential engineer type that I’m not particularly fond of. At least not once, at approximately 3:22 one afternoon.