Ai-jen Poo thinks we’ll finally appreciate our essential workers in the wake of coronavirus

ai-jen poo
ai-jen poo
Image: Othello Banaci
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It took a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders for 1.5 billion people worldwide, but something is finally occurring to us: The future we thought we expected may not be the one we get.

We know that things will change; how they’ll change is a mystery. To envision a future altered by coronavirus, Quartz asked dozens of experts for their best predictions on how the world will be different in five years.

Below is an answer from Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, an organization that advocates on behalf of domestic workers. She also co-founded SuperMajority, an organization that trains and mobilizes women fighting on behalf of gender equity.

In five years, we will be much more appreciative of jobs that have been invisible to us; once devalued low-wage service jobs will become valued and protected, as essential work should be.

When the pandemic forced schools and offices to close, and so many of us shifted to working from home or not working at all, a division of the work that we do became very clear. There is the work we need for our very survival—essential work—and everything else. We missed the teachers, the nannies, and the child care providers. While we were able to pause many industries, we weren’t able to pause home care workers, who take care of older people that need help with their daily tasks; or delivery drivers, who became our lifeline to the outside world; or grocery store workers, who stocked shelves so we could get the food we needed for our kitchens. We weren’t able to pause farm workers and food factory workers who kept producing the food for grocery stores.

The common thread between all of these workers is that they are essential workers, but there’s another commonality: They are also low-wage workers. Too often, essential workers fall outside of any safety net, without benefits like paid sick leave, paid medical or family leave, health insurance, or any retirement benefits. Many of these workers do not even receive a living wage, meaning that they cannot support their families on their wages, even as our families rely on them for our safety and wellbeing. There’s a stark disconnect between the essential role of the work that we actually need and the way we value it, and the pandemic (hopefully) has given us urgency to value and protect low-wage work in America in a whole new way.

I am hopeful because, though it’s just a beginning, the work to invest in these jobs has begun. The Essential Workers Bill of Rights has laid out a framework for the protections that all workers need, especially essential workers, including health and safety protections, robust premium compensation, universal paid sick leave, family leave and medical leave, health care security and child care support, among others. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has already invested in the creation of a truly portable benefits platform for domestic workers, called Alia, which has created easy access to benefits like paid time off and life insurance for domestic workers, some of the least visible essential workers, for the first time. Cities are starting to legislate for solutions to address these disparities—Philadelphia became the first city to mandate portable paid leave for domestic workers as of May 2020. Think of how much has changed in the last five months, and how much we have survived, thanks to our essential workers. Let’s make sure that five years from now, their jobs, health, and wellbeing are as secure as they kept us.

To read more New Normal answers, click here.