We call them “essential” workers now, but they’ve always been

What exactly are we trying to preserve?

We may claim to love the children, but we've never paid a living wage to the people who take care of them for us.

My mom is a childcare provider in northern Minnesota. She’s started doing that job after she raised my sisters and me. She specializes in infants because she loves babies. She loves babies a lot more than she likes money. I know this because she could earn more at Wal-Mart or a fast food restaurant than she makes taking care of babies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average child care worker in America makes about $19,500, so I’ll just leave it at that.

She doesn’t want to do those other jobs. She thinks it’s important that babies get attention and care while their parents are out making more money than she, and collectively paying more for childcare than she gets paid. My mother doesn’t talk this way; I do. She’s the one who taught me how to read and write and empathize. I suppose that was her mistake. 

Mom could have gone back to school to finish a four-year degree in early childhood education. Then she would have been paid more. But a degree in early childhood education leads to the lowest-paying profession among those that require degrees, so she never saw the point. Besides, she loves babies and their families. Actually, she’s a saint. 

We could get into everything that’s wrong with the child care system in this country. It’s pretty messed up. Enormous amounts of government regulations filter through a system that’s supposed to be capitalistic so that owners can make money. Yet it’s fundamentally unprofitable to hire a person to care for four babies, the legal limit, so it’s a doomed venture from the start. Parents can’t afford to pay more. Daycares can’t afford to pay their workers a decent wage. The median wage for child care workers in the United States is shy of $12 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But all that was true years ago.

No, what got me going is the fact that my mom was declared an essential worker when the state of Minnesota ordered people to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on March 27. So were a lot of other moms, dads, sons and daughters who work jobs often labeled “low wage,” “entry level” or even “low skill” — a subtle insult that rationalizes their economic strangulation. 

My mom laughed when she heard that the child care centers were considered essential because health care and law enforcement people need day care for their children or else they can’t go to work. Mom said that’s pretty much the same as any other day. Indeed, people like my mom care for everyone’s babies: wealthy or poor, every race and creed, every day. 

Her hours have been cut, but she’s still working for now. She’s glad for that because she lives alone and has no sick leave or vacation days. That’s also typical for the child care industry. 

Grocery store clerks are among the unsung heroes of this entire episode. In addition to having to work in an environment where contracting COVID-19 is a real risk, they deal with the public during a high stress time. It might not be rational to hoard toilet paper, but when a person sets their mind to it they aren’t likely to be polite. Many companies, including Super One here in northern Minnesota, have responded by raising wages for their employees to keep them on the job. 

That’s good. But it’s only a start. 

Being designated an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic is nice and all. It’s true; these workers are essential. We understand that a health crisis is a matter of life and death. But what kind of life are we trying to preserve? 

Maybe when this is all over we can acknowledge that all workers are essential and see that they’re paid enough to live with dignity. Maybe we can spare the crocodile tears over efforts to improve the lives of the working poor. And maybe we can acknowledge that doing this is what’s really best for our so-called economy. 

In fact, prioritizing households ahead of capital might be the only way out of this unfolding economic disaster.