Why I call Bullshit on “Thank You Essential Workers”

“You have arrived.” 

The voice from my phone taunts me as I squint out the window of my van, panning slowly across rustic-style doors and perfectly arranged porch furniture for, please god, a house number. I’ve got an order of food to deliver but all the houses on this street clearly want to keep their address a secret. There is a message drawn in a child’s hand and pasted in the window of a blue front door, it says “THANK YOU ESSENTIAL WORKERS.” I stare at it, and then see, nailed above, the shine of metallic numbers. Of course, this is the house.

The first time I saw one of these handmade signs, I felt special, and it put a little extra bounce in my step as I walked the food delivery up to the house. An envelope was taped to the door with “Thank you!” written across the front, a bigger than usual tip left inside. But now, after the hundredth sign, and the thousandth delivery, these signs have started to betray something hidden,

“I’m so thankful you’re out there, so that I can stay put and stay safe in here.”

I am an essential worker at a bagel shop in Upstate NY. I happen to own the place, but as any small business owner knows, I still have to do the work. I am grateful to have a job. It’s even nice to have somewhere to go, a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. I even enjoy getting some human interaction, joking around with co-workers and most importantly, bringing home a paycheck. But essential work is hard and repetitive. The pay is the lowest in the labor market, and the jobs are often not very rewarding.

Essential workers perform tasks essential to the health, safety and community wellbeing of the larger population. One of the biggest differences between essential and non-essential workers is that the essential jobs require the worker to be in a specific place, away from home, usually among other people. Whether it be a janitor who cleans and sanitizes after each teacher leaves with the next week’s work or an aid who lifts her patient into bed at night, essential workers have to use their bodies as well as their minds to do their work. 

This type of work often carries increased risk, from traffic accidents for truckers, to working heavy machinery in a factory, to handling dangerous situations as first responders. Since the pandemic swept our country, that risk, and the related stress, has increased. Essential workers have struggled with a lack of personal protective equipment. And for those who deal directly with the public, sometimes that risk comes from the brazen disregard of public health recommendations on the part of consumers. 

In light of these realities, how does a thank you sign actually help?

Everyone is struggling during the pandemic. Many Americans are juggling new responsibilities from homeschooling to housecleaning. Essential activities are disrupted, and access to essential goods is more difficult. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store requires extra preparation and special timing. Doctors visits, scans and surgeries are postponed until further notice. Everyone is more aware of the things we used to take for granted. Things that used to be part of our day-to-day life are now disrupted and it’s out of our control.

The impulse to thank essential workers comes out of this lack of control. We feel we have to do something. Being able to say something kind, like thank you, makes us feel a little better. Maybe saying thank you feels like a small insurance policy against the threat of life unraveling any further. In reality, the thank you essential worker messages highlight a deep divide in American society between the haves and the have nots. The signs are created in an effort to lessen that divide. 

When I look at our society, I see the opposite of gratitude for essential workers. 

We may look up to reporters and doctors, but what about truckers and housekeepers? Truckers are nothing but a nuisance on the highway and housekeepers literally stay out of the way so that we don’t even have to see them. How many parents of those kids hand making signs are imagining their children will one day come home satisfied after an honest day’s work of garbage collection? Not one. It’s sad to me that bumper sticker-like sayings are all that we have collectively been able to say about the moment we find ourselves in. And like so much of what is said nowadays, I think the “thank you essential workers” messages betray a deep disconnect between what we say, and what we really mean. 

When I deliver to poor neighborhoods in the inner city, or trailer parks, I don’t see the thank you signs. Rather they pepper the fancy neighborhoods, the ones with solar panels on their roofs and perfectly curated front porches. Does that imply that the poor, the folks who make up the majority of the essential workforce, are not thankful for each other? Of course not. Because that’s not really the point of the message.

American society says thank you to the essential workforce only as long as we are forced to notice them. As more of the country returns to work, society’s focus will shift off essential workers. Pretty soon the signs will start to come down.  Getting back to normal will mean that as long as there are fresh tomatoes to pick over at the market and the bus arrives at the time the schedule says it will, no special attention is required.

Grocery work will be treated again as just grocery work. Nothing to strive for.

Thankfulness for essential workers is not actually directed towards people, rather it’s about relief that someone (doesn’t really matter who) is out there to do the jobs we would not want to do ourselves. The signs make us feel better about the fact that as a culture we have never really seen essential workers before. Essential workers have never been anything more than fully stocked shelves and resolved power outages. 

If society didn’t value the essential workforce before the pandemic, I don’t see how a bunch of thank you signs have made any difference. Not one sign has put food on a family’s table or made working conditions any safer. The thank you messages haven’t forced policy makers to address income disparities and crack down on abusive corporate policies. They haven’t made worker’s unions any stronger. They haven’t made people pay more for essential services allowing for a universal basic income. And the signs certainly haven’t stopped racism from dictating the terms of our country’s economy and society.

So, as long as making signs is all we can come up with to bridge the wide gap between people who are safe, and people who are struggling, then the essential workforce will remain invisible, and the divide in our nation will continue to rip us apart.

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