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Jeff Dewar


We’re All Essential Workers

The term is misused and misunderstood

Published: Thursday, June 11, 2020 - 11:03

‘We shouldn’t be calling some jobs essential.”

That line got me into a lot of trouble the other day when chatting with friends about how the term “essential worker” degrades the stature of all the “nonessentials,” when, in fact, we all play an essential role in the millions of supply chains across the globe.  Withholding any of our roles has the potential to throw sand in the gears of civilization. We need a more accurate, and respectful, term.

Of course I am extraordinarily grateful for the life-and-death duties that our healthcare workers on the front lines of this pandemic are performing, as well as the supermarket, bank, emergency services, law enforcement, transit, and so many other workers who perform their important jobs with a much increased risk of infection.  I’m grateful, too, for those workers whose tasks just can’t be delayed, like the plumber who clears a blocked toilet.  These are the people whom we usually think of as the “essential workforce” these days, but in fact what’s included in the actual definition is so much larger.

Governments have put out plenty of guidelines defining what essential critical infrastructure sectors, are and what the “essential workforce” is, and it covers a surprisingly wide spectrum of jobs.  Because Quality Digest’s headquarters are located in California, I looked at that state’s guidelines as an example.

It’s interesting that even though many chiropractors and dentists have shut down, California in fact considers them part of the “essential workforce.” When you read through the definitions, it feels as though every job except those in the hospitality industries are essential, but even within that sector, California considers some of these workers essential:

“Workers supporting restaurant carry-out and quick-serve food operations, including food preparation, carry-out, and delivery food employees.”

Returning to the more limited, conventional (and as I’ve explained, incorrect) definition of an essential worker in our current environment, we see posters and billboards everywhere and get messages in every media outlet about the thanks these people deserve—and they absolutely do. But I can’t help feeling this has the unfortunate byproduct of denigrating the important inputs into the total industrial ecosystem we all depend on to maintain our prosperity and keep our quality of life intact.

Newsweek published a list of essential workers that included this quote:

“While many of us are being told to stay at home, these workers have a responsibility during the outbreak to continue operations, potentially putting their lives in danger through contracting Covid-19. Some of these people work behind the scenes without the general public realizing how essential they are to keeping society functioning.”

Essential to keep society functioning. I can’t help but think that makes some “nonessential” work seem… trivial… unimportant… frivolous… unneeded.

Isn’t the work of a payroll manager working at home essential to keeping the wheels of the insurance company rolling?  Isn’t the IT technician who keeps the company website running smoothly for online orders essential to us receiving our deliveries of keyboards and mice and toilet paper?  Isn’t the work of a metrologist (a measurement expert) figuring out how to perfectly align two gigantic parts of a power turbine essential so they fit together perfectly with a simple "click"?  These jobs and thousands of others are technically considered essential, but society at large doesn’t view them this way right now because those jobs don’t put those workers at increased risk of infection.

Closer to home for me, what about... the quality industry journalists who provide industry news, content, and opinions about quality practices? Aren’t they part of an indispensable chain linking to the quality professionals who effectively deploy quality management systems, conform to ISO standards, and successfully pass audits? Without them, we’d see billions of dollars of waste, or even death due to dangerous products slipping through to end-users.

Maybe we’re just using the wrong term. Instead of “essential worker” we can honor the sometimes frightening risks taken by some in our workforce, as well as the urgency of their work, by calling them “high risk workers” or “infection hazard workers.”

I believe we’re all—musicians, artists, food servers, entertainers—“essential” to the totality of a working economy. It’s just that many of us have the privilege and even luxury of working at home, or outside of it as is the case for certain construction activities that are done largely solo, with relatively little risk of infection. In the short term, some can delay providing their services without any risk to anyone’s life. But over an extended period, even just weeks, without their work the human condition will suffer.

I, for one, miss a small venue with a live singer and soft melodies on a classical guitar.  That worker is “essential” to my mental health.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.