May 22, 2020

Why “essential” workers are treated as disposable

By Ezra Klein

Grocery store clerks. Fast-food cashiers. Hospice care workers. Bus drivers. Farmworkers. Along with doctors and nurses, these are the people who are putting their own lives at risk to keep our society functioning day in and out amid the worst crisis of our lifetimes. We call them heroes, we label them “essential,” and we clap for their brave efforts — even though none of them signed up for this monumental task, and many of them lack basic health care, paid sick leave, a living wage, cultural respect, and dignified working conditions.

This conversation on The Ezra Klein Show asks: How did things get this way? Why did we end up with an economy that treats our most essential workers as disposable? And what does an alternative future of work look like?

Mary Kay Henry is the president of the Service Employees International Union, a 2-million-person organization that represents a huge segment of America’s essential workers. If you ask a traditional economist why essential workers are paid so little, they’ll talk about marginal productivity and returns to education; ask Kay Henry and she’ll talk about something very different: power.

A lightly edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.