One of the lessons we should be learning from the COVID crisis is who is actually out there on the front lines, keeping us safe.

Doctors and nurses? Yes, but we knew about them before the pandemic struck. The same with police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, ambulance drivers and others in the public safety network who get called out to help people who may be sick.

But what about janitors? Could doctors and nurses care for their patients if the hospitals in which they worked weren’t sanitary? These are front line workers.

What about grocery store cashiers? Could society continue to function if the stores weren’t open and the shelves weren’t stocked? These are front line workers.

The same goes for postal workers and delivery drivers who get packages to the doors of people who are sheltering in place. They are the people who have to keep showing up so that others can stay home and avoid catching or spreading a virus. And that puts these workers on the front lines in this pandemic as well as the many local epidemics to which we failed to give our attention.

Much of the state has been shut down for six weeks now, a public health strategy that appears to be working. The number of new cases has started to level off, but all it would take is a couple of spikes – say, an outbreak in a homeless shelter, a prison or a couple of nursing homes all at once – to overtax the health care system. Standing in the way of that happening are the shelter workers, corrections officers and certified nursing assistants who keep coming to work.

It’s been noted that all of the nation’s billionaires could have stayed home during the last six weeks and we wouldn’t have noticed any impact on the economy. But laying off waiters, cooks, dishwashers and retail workers has brought us to the brink of disaster. Imagine where we would be if the front line didn’t hold.

Who are our front line workers? Thanks to some timely work by Sarah Austin, a policy analyst from the Maine Center for Economic Policy, we have a pretty good idea.

She teased out Maine data from a national study that looked at six industries that have been classified as “essential” during the coronavirus response. They are grocery, convenience and drug stores; public transit; trucking, warehouse and postal service; building cleaning services; health care; and child care and social services.

In Maine, those industries employ about 160,000 people, nearly a quarter of the total workforce. More than two-thirds (68 percent) are women, and about 40 percent are over age 50.

As a group, front line workers are more likely to come from low-income households than the workforce as a whole. They are also slightly less likely to have health insurance than other workers.

It’s no question that we rely on them, but how do we thank them?

Not very well. There is barely enough personal protective equipment to go around in health care settings, so workers in public-facing settings like grocery stores are unlikely to have access to masks and gloves, or any specialized training on how to use them to keep themselves safe. These workers who we have determined to be essential are told to interact with hundreds of strangers every shift without basic protection. Making sure that every single person serving on the front lines has these basic tools is the least we can do as a society.

There are other steps we should take going forward. Universal health coverage, paid sick days and affordable child care would also help these workers who we rely on so heavily. Higher pay for direct care workers – along with hazard pay for anyone serving in public settings during a time of contagion – would also be called for.

Maybe the best place to start is by appreciating how many workers have continued to keep essential services running during this crisis. As bad as things have been over the last couple of months, it’s easy to imagine how much worse they could have been if not for the front line workers who did not stay home.

We owe them our thanks, and even when this is over, we will owe them a lot more.


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