If you watch enough television, you will often see a doctor or nurse describing in agonizing detail the pressures they are under treating coronavirus patients. I am in awe at their courage, their devotion to their calling, and the risks they take to care for patients.
After 9/11, the country recognized the courage of the first responders who ran into the burning buildings as the rest of the people tried to get out. Today, the country is responding with a similar outpouring of gratitude to the highly skilled and dedicated medical professionals who are our first line of defense against this pandemic.
I want to expand the group worthy of our thanks and praise to include others. I want to celebrate people who don’t get as much credit but in fact are just as essential in this fight. I celebrate the people who keep the food supply arriving in our grocery stores, the medications arriving at the neighborhood pharmacy or into our mailbox, the electricity and heating fuels arriving at our homes, and those who deliver the information we need to keep connected and keep safe.
Let’s start with the agricultural workers. Before the food got to the grocery store it was a plant or an animal — and an agricultural worker is the reason it grew to maturity. Before the electricity came to our houses, it was generated because a worker brought fuel out of the ground, or constructed a wind turbine or a solar array. Before the medications arrived at our pharmacy, the pills were assembled mostly by workers overseas (about 70 percent roughly). For every reported story in a newspaper or delivered by electronic media, there is a reporter out getting the story. There are technicians and printers who report to work to create the information flow.
Once these are finished products they go to wholesalers, distributors and, finally, to the grocer, utility or pharmacy. How did they get there? Both food and drugs were sorted and prepared for shipment by warehouse workers. The newspapers were sorted and packed for home delivery or bulk drop off. Unlike workers who might be able to practice some form of personal distancing, like agricultural workers, people working to extract fossil fuels, to erect turbines or install solar panels, or to mix chemical ingredients in labs, warehouse workers are thrown together in enclosed spaces (enclosed spaces increase the intensity of possible infections). Even delivery of television programming often requires camera operators in close proximity to their subjects.
The warehouse workers, in particular, without whose work we would not eat or medicate ourselves cannot practice separation, cannot work from home. Some of these workers have responded with job actions to forces their employers to, for example, supply them with protective equipment or give their workplaces intensive cleanings every 24 hours. (For one recent example, see Amazon Warehouse Workers are Walking Out and Whole Foods Workers are Striking.)
A few days ago I came across an ad inviting people to apply for warehouse jobs in Beacon. The wage was just under $20 an hour which at 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year comes to a bit over $41,000 gross, which is lower than the median income for male workers in the United States — hardly a ticket to the upper middle class. In fact, these workers deserve the equivalence of hazardous duty pay!
Once the products are ready for shipment, it’s (mostly) truck drivers who move the food to the grocery store, the oil or natural gas to the generating plant, the pills to the pharmacy, and the newspapers to the stores, newsstands and home delivery personnel. (Some products still move by rail, of course.) Though one might think the long haul truck drivers are pretty safe, because they work alone and can sleep in the cab, they still have to get fuel, food and take bathroom breaks at a large number of truck stops all over the country — where they will almost certainly find themselves much less than 6 feet away from fellow customers at their various stops.
Finally, grocery store workers stock the shelves, pharmacy workers put the pills in bottles, local oil and gas companies deliver the fuel to our homes and apartment buildings. In addition, the check-out clerks in groceries take great risks, coming close to every person who buys provisions inside the store. Media people who do not have the luxury of working from home are in the various stations interacting with co-workers — though some are definitely able to practice social distancing.
And through all of this, workers in the Postal Service, UPS and Fedex deliver packages and mail directly to our door, keeping us connected, while public transit workers bring essential workers to and from work, often exposing themselves.
For those of us able to work from home, for those of us at home waiting for the all clear to return to work, for those of us retired living off our pensions and Social Security, we need to take a deep breath and offer our heartfelt thanks not just to the doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers and firefighters, but to all these hard working underappreciated men and women who cooperate to deliver the goods.
Meeropol lives in Cold Spring. This commentary is based on one he delivered on April 3 on WAMC-FM.