COVID-19 shows that all workers are essential

It’s time we retire the idea of “essential” and “non-essential” workers.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated anything, it’s that all the cogs in our economic machine are essential. Pull too many bits and pieces out, and the whole thing risks grinding to a halt.

While we are hunkered down – working from home if we can, making due the best we can if we can’t – there are a whole lot of people out there who are making sure the rest of us can “shelter in place” or social distance ourselves.

My very first job off the farm was working for a grocery store, where I stocked shelves, bagged groceries and ran a cash register.

Never in my wildest dream did I ever imagine that people doing those jobs would be on the frontlines of holding our communities together by ensuring that the rest of us can buy food and household supplies.

These folks are putting themselves at risk so the rest of us can have supper tonight. That’s pretty essential – and pretty brave.

Scott Mitchell fills a box with toilet paper at the Tissue Plus factory in Bangor last week. The new company has been unexpectedly busy because of the shortage of toilet paper brought on by hoarders concerned about the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

It might be an inconvenience to lose the Internet, especially on a snow day when everyone’s cooped up at home. But when thousands of work-from-homers are depending on their connection to work – and pay their bills – it ain’t a convenience anymore.

As I thought about them – the jobs that we take for granted and those we might not think about at all – I had a hard time coming up with a list of “non-essential” work if you’re talking about not doing it for more than just a day or two.

Restaurant worker – they’re meeting us at the curb to help keep us fed.

Payroll clerk – yes, please and thank you.

Delivery driver – I’ll pay you whatever you want.

IT person who’s always testing to see if you fall for an email scam – what we would do without you. (Answer: Literally nothing.)

On Tuesday, during Gov. Janet Mills’ press conference updating the state on efforts to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the governor reported that 70% of state workers were working remotely.

That’s an amazing number when you consider that the state workforce includes law enforcement, public health workers, transportation workers, child protective officers and a ton more that can’t go remote. We need them on the streets and they’re still there.

It’s easy to fall into shorthand to convey ideas that are a little complicated or nuanced. Classifying workers as “essential” or “non-essential” is an easy way to say cops need to be out in the community no matter what while the person who gets the mail can stay home today.

But COVID-19 and the strain that it’s putting on all of our systems demands that we do better, that we come up with better language that – unintentionally or not – doesn’t divide workers into groups that could easily be confused with important and unimportant.

The machine works because we all work. And while some of us can tip-tap away at our keyboards from our couch, it takes a whole lot of other people out and about to make sure that’s possible.

And with that, when we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and start to rebuild our economy from the damage it’s suffered, we need to start with policies that take into account the lessons that we’ve learned.

All workers deserve to earn a living wage. They’ve shown us just how much we depend upon them.

Everyone deserves access to quality, affordable health care that they don’t lose if they get laid off, furloughed or fired.

Paid time off and paid family and medical leave are essential for everyone so that they won’t go to work sick and can stay home – in an emergency – to take care of their family without being afraid they’ll be fired or lose their house.

And it’s time to put an end artificial distinctions like “essential” and “non-essential.” They just don’t fit.



David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at