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EDITORIAL: 'Essential' doesn't pay

The Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this March 26, 2020, file photo, Garrett Ward sprays disinfectant on a conveyor belt between checking out shoppers behind a plexiglass panel at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Overland Park, Kan. From South Africa to Italy to the U.S., grocery workers — many in low-wage jobs — are manning the front lines amid worldwide lockdowns, their work deemed essential to keep food and critical goods flowing. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Being "essential" doesn't pay. 

A lot has been made of the "heroes" manning their cash registers and driving their delivery trucks throughout the coronavirus pandemic. As millions of Americans holed up — and layoffs swept through the country — these "essential" workers reported to their jobs at grocery stores, meat packing plants and gas stations.

And, like the physicians and nurses treating patients infected with COVID-19, their own health was put at legitimate risk as they interacted with hundreds or thousands of customers.

Some of the largest employers in the U.S. have noticed the situation in which they've placed their workforces. Retail giant Walmart is running commercials lauding the men and women who staff its stores. CEOs this week took the opportunity to praise their workers on the White House lawn during a dog and pony show with President Donald Trump.

But behind the pandering and glad-handing, this crisis has exposed a sad irony: The U.S. stands or falls on the backs of some of its lowest-paid workers, who also happen to be disproportionately women and people of color. 

The average Walmart sales associate earned just $9.41 an hour in 2018, says an analysis by CNBC. Dollar General paid its average associate just $7.87 an hour. And the average delivery driver in the U.S. was paid an annual wage of $32,800, a quarter of whom earned just $24,500 a year, according to U.S. News and World Report.

These are workers who toil in industries universally deemed necessary for the continuance of basic American society. And yet, in much of the country, they don't earn enough to pay rent. 

While certainly not new, it's an infuriating injustice. And it's one that cannot be ignored after the coronavirus made clear American priorities. 

It's been more than a decade since Congress raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. And lawmakers didn't even bother tying that minimum to inflation, meaning millions of workers effectively earn less than the year before. In fact, the libertarian bloc of the right-wing wants to do away with it altogether. 

A handful of states and cities have boosted local minimum hourly pay rates. But, throughout much of the country, that long outdated federal standard has languished due to legislative inaction.

The beheading of Gov. Tom Wolf's effort to boost Pennsylvania's minimum has become an annual tradition in the state's Republican-run Legislature, where corporate interests seem to outstrip all else.

Low-wage workers are mostly high school students, Republicans cynically allege, a claim that flies in the face of almost all peer-reviewed research. 

So, in short, Americans have decided that certain industries must remain operational come hell or high water. Trump this week went so far as to demand meet packing businesses remain open by tapping powers intended to fight world wars.

And yet, the people who do this necessary work live in poverty. And it's all because the rest of us expect access to cheap pork and quarterly stock dividend payments.