We’re treating essential workers like they’re expendable, again — Column

November 5, 2021 6:36 am

A construction hat with a sticker reading “Am I essential or expendable?” to protest continuing work during the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

They slaughtered animals for us — practically shoulder to shoulder during a pandemic — so we could be carnivores. 

They cared for the elderly and then watched one after another of their patients succumb to the virus. 

They stocked the shelves of grocery stores and brought the food to our cars. They kept Amazon warehouses humming so we could have all the junk we wanted, when we wanted it. 

They are our Minnesota essential workers, 667,000 of them, according to research compiled with the help of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

They took risks to perform work that had to be done and could only be done in person, and often in the vicinity of the sick. They endured the vituperation of overgrown children who shouted at them about masks.  

Minnesota state government — which means the representatives we send to St. Paul — extends a big hearty thank you to the people who allowed us to live a semblance of normal lives during the pandemic. 

And to show our gratitude is more than just words, what are we giving these courageous, hardworking, very tired laborers?


A legislative working group — comprising three senators, three representatives and three appointees of Gov. Tim Walz — threw in the towel last week, giving up on negotiations that sought to divide $250 million. Which, if you do the math, is a paltry sum. It amounts to about $375 for each of those 667,000 workers. 

Republicans wanted to limit the number of workers so that each would receive $1,200. Surely it’s just a coincidence that they chose politically popular and/or allied interest groups — including health care workers and prison guards — while cutting out everyone else. 

Complicating matters: Republicans who control the Senate had other agenda items. Some of them are eager to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. (What? Yeah, it’s a whole thing. Just nevermind.) And now they want changes to the state’s emergency powers statute to prevent Walz or some other governor from becoming a tyrant. 

I realize it’s confusing, because these are the same Republicans who are loud and proud supporters of an actual authoritarian, former President Donald Trump, who tried to stay in power by overturning the results of the election.

The problems with the treatment of essential workers during the pandemic goes back much further than these failed negotiations, however. 

In 2020, Congress and the Trump administration, while doling out hundreds of billions of dollars to businesses and state and local government, required firms and government entities of 50-500 workers to offer paid leave

Larger firms, like, say, Amazon, were exempt

That left out roughly half the full-time workforce, or 60 million workers, according to Health Affairs, under the claim that workers for big companies would already have access to sick and leave time.

If you price the suits worn by the lobbyists for the big companies, you’ll better understand why Congress really created the carve out. 

Tyler Hamilton is a trainer at the Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, and he missed a month of work last year after being infected with COVID-19. The first two weeks were paid, but the second were not. 

Meanwhile, the warehouse was a source of hundreds of infections, he told me during a June interview. In October of 2020, the company reported that nearly 20,000 warehouse workers had been infected nationwide, but seems not to have reported any number since. 

Hamilton, who is trying to organize Amazon workers, said he and his coworkers will appreciate getting compensated for taking risks to get us our packages, especially while working for a company without adequate leave policies. 

Still, he said he finds the whole essential worker bonus pay issue a little baffling. Why should Minnesota taxpayers essentially subsidize Amazon by paying its workers a pandemic bonus when the company — with a market cap of $1.7 trillion — ought to be able to provide adequate pay and benefits? 

Amazon did not respond to an inquiry. The New York Times reported recently on the company’s troubled system for managing employee leave, and said that to fix the problem, Amazon was “hiring hundreds of employees, streamlining and connecting systems, clarifying its communications and training human resources staff members to be more empathetic.” 

I asked Hamilton what would really matter to people like his coworkers at the warehouse in Shakopee, aside from a few hundred dollars from Minnesota taxpayers. 

Just to start: Paid family leave, which has been offered up at the state Capitol and passed the Democratic-controlled House but rejected by Senate Republicans. 

In Washington, the so-called moderate Democrats knifed working families in the back by cutting out paid family leave during the interminable negotiations over a social spending bill. (They put it back in the day after Democrats suffered losses in Virginia.)

“There’s a variety of things that are supposed to be safety nets to protect workers and families, and I’d love it if we could get a state bill to implement these things,” Hamilton said. 

That’s unlikely, as the party that once touted its “family values” can’t be bothered with such trifling matters as helping families who are having babies and caring for loved ones. 

That’s lady stuff! 

I again return to the people who worked jobs just so we could have our daily sustenance and even prandial pleasures: As our sister site the Iowa Capital Journal reported recently, the number of meatpacking workers infected and killed by COVID-19 turned out to be triple than previously believed, according to a congressional report. 

There’s lots of talk about how the pandemic and massive aid packages passed by Congress have given workers newfound leverage, and that’s great. 

But the pandemic — and now the debate at the Minnesota Legislature about essential worker bonus pay — has also driven home what’s been true since at least 1980: America treats the people who make the meat, clean the floors and pack the boxes like they’re expendable.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children