Essential Workers Deserve More than Platitudes

Published on October 21, 2020

It’s Time to Recognize and Reward their Hard Work

COVID-19’s impact on retail businesses hasn’t just reshaped how we do business, or even how we redefine the very idea of “service” in a socially distanced world; it has put a spotlight on a segment of workers who, for far too long, haven’t gotten the just recognition they deserve.

For more than six months, waiters, grocery clerks and other service sector employees—now known as essential workers— have put their own health on the line to ensure that everyone else can continue living their lives while practicing social distancing . But simply hailing frontline workers as heroes isn’t enough. It’s time for businesses of all sizes, and even consumers, to take concrete actions to acknowledge the value of this essential segment of our workforce.  

I was proud to see U.S. News & World Report name Austin as No. 1 on its “Best Places to Live” list. As a part-time Austin resident, I love spending time in this dynamic city with its world-renowned music-and-arts scene combined with rich cultural diversity and the wellspring of innovation that is our University of Texas. But, unfortunately, my experience only tells half the story. Months after the flattering portrayal in US News & World Report, a different study found that Austin is actually the least livable city for minimum wage workers—that’s largely driven by the fact that they earn the federal minimum-wage of $7.25, which is far lower than other major U.S. cities.  In short, Austin is a great place to live, so long as you’re not a low-wage, hourly worker.

Thankfully, throughout the pandemic, many large companies have started to treat their employees like the essential workers they are.  In June, Target announced that it would give its lowest-paid employees a $2 an hour raise, from $13 to $15. And earlier this month, Hobby Lobby went even further, announcing that it will begin raising starting pay to $17 an hour.

Even before the pandemic, which exposed deep fault lines in our society, companies like Amazon and McDonald’s began proactively raising minimum wages to $15 an hour, recognizing that the benefits in increased productivity and worker retention more than offset the costs of higher wages.  

These CEOs likely realized what Henry Ford prophesized more than a century ago when he announced, to great surprise and fanfare, that he was doubling his workers’ wages.

“We increased the buying power of our own people, and they increased the buying power of other people, and so on and so on,” wrote Ford, who went on to sell more cars than all other automakers combined. “It is this thought of enlarging buying power by paying high wages and selling at low prices that is behind the prosperity of this country.”

It’s encouraging to see more companies taking a proactive approach to rewarding employees. Regardless of their motivation, we are seeing more “companies that care” take steps to remedy this gap.

According to the book Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness, 80 percent of employees cite “lack of appreciation” as the primary reason for leaving their last job.  Organizations are now realizing that paying higher wages is not just the right thing to do – but also good for the bottom line. But there is still more we can do. We consumers can advocate for frontline workers, as well.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many communities saw an outpouring of support for health care workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and others. Posting words and signs of encouragement on doors and windows, banging pots and pans to show appreciation, and even serving lunches and dinners for these employees became commonplace in neighborhoods and cities across the country.

But this should only be the start and we cannot allow progress in the fight against COVID-19 to lessen our appreciation for individuals that are now recognized as essential.

When I go to a supermarket or home-improvement store, I should be able to reward employees for their service, just like I do when I visit a restaurant or bar. Tipping shouldn’t replace paying workers a living wage, but we also shouldn’t discourage people from recognizing and rewarding exceptional frontline employees in a way that feels natural and appropriate to them. 

Despite misperceptions, hourly employees aren’t teenagers working for spare pocket change. Many low-wage workers are older—only one in five are teenagers—and many are looking for meaningful opportunities to make connections, build their resumes and climb the ladder in their given professions.

Ultimately, we need to begin to value all work. People who put on a uniform or wear an apron are just as valuable to society as those of us who sit in an office. Putting up rainbow signs in our windows is a nice way to start to recognize these workers—but it’s just that, a start. Until we begin to appropriately praise and reward hourly employees, we’re not providing the respect and acknowledgment they deserve.

Mark Bunting is a contributor to Grit Daily and the founder of Grata, a first-of-its kind social media platform that connects frontline service employees with customers and employees, creating deep, long-lasting connections that fuel topline growth, accelerate careers, deepen customer experiences and spread gratitude.

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