Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

It’s time to show essential workers the money.

David Rolf
3 min readApr 30, 2020


For essential workers, the minimum isn’t enough; $20 is where we should start

The amount of ink being written about the sacrifices and selflessness of essential workers could fill the nearby Puget Sound. But if we really want to honor these heroes we should, in the immortal words of the Cuba Gooding Jr. character in Jerry McGuire, show them the money.

It’s not news that there is an upside-down relationship between pay and the value of work in our society. Whether it’s that the income of a corporate consultant at McKinsey is more than eight times that of the $11.65 an hour paid to the woman who cares for his children, or the lawyer who gets paid an average of five times as much as the woman who cleans her office at night, the hard working Americans who do the most essential work are almost always paid the least. Nor is it news or happenstance that the valuable jobs that aren’t financially rewarded are more likely to be held by women, people of color, and immigrants.

The COVID crisis has made us keenly aware of the risks taken every day not just by health care providers but by all frontline workers performing essential jobs. The Center for Economic Policy Research calculated that there are 30 million working people in six industries at the frontlines, including grocery store clerks, home care aides, nursing home workers, cleaners, warehouse workers, and bus drivers, among others. Almost 100 transit workers have died of COVID as have workers at grocery chains. As CEPR says: “They were essential before the pandemic hit, yet also overworked, underpaid, under protected, and under appreciated.” New America recently released analysis showing that one-out-of-three essential workers — who once again are disproportionately women and people of color — are paid under $15 an hour. And these concerns don’t fall along partisan lines: AEI recently published a blog post saying, “On the one hand, we shower praise on “essential workers” in hospitals, grocery stores, sanitation and other occupations. On the other, we engage in acts of economic coercion with vulnerable populations who do some of the dirtiest, most difficult, and most dangerous work around.” Essential workers deserve better.

It’s time to recognize their contributions in more than words. Congress should act immediately to provide a greater measure of health and financial security to all essential workers. Senate Democrats are talking about a “Heroes Fund,” which would provide a $25,000 bonus through the end of 2020. That would certainly help during the pandemic, but what about after the pandemic?

Are we comfortable having essential workers risk their lives during the pandemic and then go back to a paycheck that doesn’t provide enough for them to care for and support their family? We need to be providing essential workers a living wage. $15/hour is not enough. The base hourly wage for essential workers should be at least $20, as Future Now recognizes in newly released model state legislation.

Essential workers should also be guaranteed proper protective equipment and safety precautions, paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and health insurance, whether they work for an employer with 5 or 5,000 employees. The Essential Workers Bill of Rights, proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna, includes these and other measures, including proposals to elevate the ability of workers to have a voice in shaping the health and economic response to the crisis and in negotiating for worker protections and compensation.

It’s great that every evening at 7:00 we applaud and bang pots for essential workers. But we need to keep banging those pots all the way to the steps of the Statehouses and halls of Congress to make the policy changes that will improve the lives of these and all working people in America, the true heroes of our economy.

A few pieces that resonated with me over the last few days:

“To Safely Reopen, Make the Workweek Shorter. Then Keep It Shorter.” The Atlantic

“Four Priorities for Pandemic Relief Efforts,” Roosevelt Institute

Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not,” The New Yorker

“American Billionaires Have Gotten $280 Billion Richer Since the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Fast Company

“Leadership Failure Made the U.S. Pandemic Worse (with Ronald Klain),” Pitchfork Economics

Stay safe and healthy!