7 Things You Shouldn’t Ever Say to An Essential Worker

5 Things You Shouldn’t Ever Say to An Essential Worker


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The coronavirus has laid bare who society’s essential workers are. But for most of these workers, being recognized as essential isn’t earning them more compensation or even acknowledgement.

Across the country, essential workers, many of whom are the sole providers for their families, report putting their lives on the line for “$11, $12 an hour, just to survive,” as one home health worker put it. Disproportionately, these low-wage essential workers are people of color and women. In New York City, the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, Black, Latinx and Asian workers make up 70% of the city’s essential workforce. This same racial divide is evident in other cities hit hard by the virus, too, from Milwaukee to Chicago to New Orleans. Meanwhile, across the U.S., one in three jobs held by women has been deemed essential. 

Whether they work in hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, laundromats or gas stations, just to name a few essential workplaces, one thing is certain: these are the people on the frontlines of a deadly virus. And the rate at which they’re falling ill speaks to that. But despite the enormity of the risk they’re taking on — and the enormity of our reliance on them — many of these workers are failing to receive even the most basic of protections. 

Instead of things like PPE, hazard pay, paid sick leave and health insurance, some companies are giving their essential workers gift cards. The Amazon-owned Whole Foods recently came under fire for giving workers “hero” t-shirts; meanwhile, those same workers say the company, which has reportedly generated record-breaking sales since COVID began, is prioritizing profits over their lives.

In short, far too little is being done for a segment of the workforce that’s responsible for keeping society glued together in the midst of a pandemic. For those of us sheltered from the frontlines, it’s paramount that we support these workers by helping apply pressure to their employers and demanding better benefits and protections for them. And we should also make sure that, on a personal level, we’re giving these workers the credit and appreciation they deserve. 

If you’re speaking to an essential worker, first off — thank them. Tip them, whenever applicable and for however much you can. Protect them by keeping the proper distance, wearing PPE and only going inside businesses when strictly necessary. And respect them by making sure not to say the following seven things.

1. “You’re lucky to still have a job, at least!”

For starters, there’s nothing “lucky” about having to put the lives of yourself and your family at risk to continue making ends meet. Maybe, as the person making this comment, you’re just looking for a silver lining. Maybe you’re out of work yourself and feel those who are still making money must be better off comparatively. And maybe the other person does feel lucky to have a job. Either way, it’s really not your place to comment.

2. “I’m so glad you were open!”

If you’re the customer in this scenario, clearly you’re benefiting from the store having been open. If you’re the person serving the customer, you may feel differently. Don’t force your enthusiasm on them.

3. “I don’t know what I’d do without this (non-essential thing) I’m about to buy!” 

Maybe that iced coffee is the highlight of your week. But again, keep your glee over being able to purchase XYZ item to yourself. Otherwise, you could be intimating — however unintentionally — that you care more about your ability to make that purchase than the worker's ability to stay safe.

4. “Is this just a temporary job for you?”

Not only is this contributing to the traditional undervaluing of the same jobs that have proven to be essential in this crisis — it also just really isn’t any of your business whether the person sees their position as long-term or temporary. 

5. “I’ve been waiting for X long.”

Don't. Say this. In normal life, it already isn’t OK to be that person snipping at someone who's serving you. Factor in the risks that workers are taking during this pandemic, the strain they’re working under and the limited resources they’re working with, and expressing your impatience is completely, irredeemably unacceptable.

6. “Did you hear this piece of news about (insert anything having to do with COVID)?”

Let people be their own gatekeepers for how much COVID-related news they’re trying to consume on any given day. That especially goes for people who don’t easily have the ability to ignore you because of their job function. 

Plus, one to be careful with.

7. “You’re a hero!”

To clarify, we should absolutely be sharing with essential workers how sincerely we appreciate them, and this is a fine sentiment to express. But talk, as they say, can be cheap. Be careful that you’re not just slipping in hollow “hero” applause so that you can feel better about contributing to the consumer demand that’s forcing a likely underpaid and underprotected person to expose themselves to risk. By all means, voice your admiration. Express your gratitude. And combine that with as big a tip as you can afford, backing workers’ rights to better pay and protection from their employers, and doing whatever you can to help keep them safe.