An Inconvenient Truth about Essential Workers

One need not search far to find the subject of the current wave of internet populism. It’s rare to find bipartisanship in the dark whole of Twitter replies; however, on occasion, unity can occur. Unfortunately, this unity is rarely based on reason, and the current illogical flavor of the week is extra pay for essential workers. 

I’m searching for words here, because there isn’t much to say. Meme culture has run rampant with the essential worker thirst, using the issue as a rebuttal to the $600 unemployment stipend. “The government is giving out $600 checks to people sitting on the couch, but brave essential workers aren’t getting a dime”. The sentiment, while foolish, strikes a cord in the blue collar worker’s heart. The middle class is used to getting stepped on, so when an opportunity to give voice to the pain arises, it’s going to be taken. 

There’s a problem. While noble and understandable, the push for money for essential workers represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives wages in the economy. See, wages aren’t driven by the sentiment of people, who empathize with the person breaking their back in the warehouse of a grocery store. Your paycheck doesn’t get determined by the sweat dripping down your face and the ache in your bones. Your salary is determined by the same forces that drive the stock market: supply and demand. 

It all sounds harsh, but sometimes the truth is hard to hear. The wages of an employee are dictated by the worth of the employee. A nurse makes a high salary, because only people trained in the discipline can do that job. There’s only a certain amount of nurses out there, and their salary reflects that. Additionally, anyone willing to put in the work of nursing school and pass the boards can be a nurse. Their salary reflects that, as well. That’s what they’re worth; that’s what they get. If they have the leverage to bargain for more, great! If they can’t, it is what it is. 

The same concepts apply to the lower wage essential workers like grocery store employees, receptionists at hospitals, janitors, and bus drivers. Your worth doesn’t change because you can’t telecommute. If these workers left their job today, they would be replaced by the end of the week. In all honesty, the replacement would probably cost the employer less money. This is why professional athletes make millions of dollars. If you ran sprints every morning, lifted every night, and studied the game of football with every minute of your spare time; you probably couldn’t be the quarterback of the Eagles. You probably couldn’t even be the long snapper. Those athletes make millions, because you can’t do what they do; however, you could definitely be a janitor. 

The truth is the only way to get more money is to make yourself more indispensable. If you work harder than everyone else at your job, you may be worth more than the rest of your coworkers, but that doesn’t make you worth anywhere close to the laziest engineer at NASA. Your job is your job. Essential workers make what they make. They’re welcome to fight for more compensation, but, at some point, it is what it is

Michael A. Romano

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