Happy Labor Day; A Big Mahalo to Our Frontline Workers

Among the new norms COVID-19 has brought is a new perspective on workers — that certain occupations are more “essential” than originally thought before the nationwide lockdowns started. The term “frontline” is an old term (used in the military to refer to those in the front of a battle field) but now recently have been reworked to describe “essential” workers who report to their jobs even through periods of lockdown.

Obvious frontline workers are those at the front of the battlefield combating the virus: doctors, nurses, allied health specialists, hospital workers of all kinds. But frontline workers also are commonly generalized to include those who are keeping essentials all together in our communities, those helping to feed us, transport us, and making daily living as close as possible as it were before the pandemic.

They include our farmers, plantation workers, meatpackers and processors, grocery employees, butchers, cashiers, fast food workers, cooks, truck drivers, bus drivers, emergency responders, EMTs, police, essential government employees, postal workers, bankers, utilities workers, and more.

What they all have in common is valiance and a commitment to report to work and risk putting their own personal health at risk in order that society can function, and at the very least, our basic needs are met.

Why definition should be clear
At the moment there is no clear definition by the government of what is considered an “essential” or front line worker during this crisis. Some experts have taken data from different government agencies to come up with an estimate of how many frontline workers there are. A common mix is using data from the Department of Homeland Security and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Brookings Institution, a public policy group based in D.C., estimates 50 million people (out of 90 million) could qualify as frontline or essential workers.

PRIORITIZE NEEDS. Why does it matter for a clear definition? Labor experts and politicians believe having a specific definition could help prioritize where needs could be extended to these workers, assist with their safety and possible pandemic benefits such as additional equipment, insurance, sick leave, hazard pay and other protections.

Additional help could be beneficial to lower-wage front line workers as studies show many of them (excluding higher paid healthcare workers) are receiving pay below the national average.

For example, millions of people work as cashiers (making $11.17 per hour), food preparation workers ($11.94 per hour), and home health aides ($12.18 per hour). Collectively, 37.3 million workers, or three-quarters of all frontline workers, earn below-average wages.

A formal list is needed to adopt policies not just for this pandemic, but any other national crisis to come.

AVOID CONFUSION. With a federal law designating essential industries or frontline workers, employees at least could know what their responsibilities are in times of emergencies, that they must report to work and can make necessary plans for matters like childcare.

The Brookings Institution identified in their model (53 million essential workers) to include public sector workers representing almost 26 percent of all essential workers; 21 percent in the health care industries; over 10 million in transportation and logistics.

STABILIZE EMPLOYMENT LEVELS IN ESSENTIAL INDUSTRIES. Identifying frontline workers would also help to stabilize employment in needed areas and to ensure that sufficient workers are available to perform necessary tasks.

For example, experts attribute the outbreak of COVID-19 at nursing homes across the country in part to lower wage nurse aides having to work overtime and double shifts (many understaffed) that led to those infected by the virus still showing up for work and infecting senior occupants and coworkers. The combination of low wage and higher health risks especially among frontline workers is a perfect recipe for disaster in a pandemic.

If nursing homes were categorized as an essential industry and their workers as essential “frontline workers,” it’s possible that government resources could have been made available to prevent many of the outbreaks that have occurred.

In the same study by Brookings, U.S. unemployment during the beginning of the pandemic in May hit 13.3 percent. While unemployment rates in essential industries in healthcare were much lower, other essential industries such as telecommunications and warehousing experienced high rates of unemployment, 5.7 percent and 15.6 percent respectively.

This Labor Day is a special one. Our essential and frontline workers literally are putting their lives at risk to save infected patients at hospitals; put their health at risk ensuring we have food on our table, and that critical services continue.

We give thanks to our frontline workers and extend gratitude also to their families as well for all their sacrifices. No one anticipated a pandemic; no one knows really what will happen next. But these brave employees continue to show up to their jobs and perform often heroic, life-saving work. Mabuhay to all frontline workers.

We would also like to extend gratitude to our colleagues in the media, especially those required to show up to work at newsrooms, TV and radio studios. News never stops and the media, an essential industry, keeps us informed on critical information.

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