Who or What is an “Essential Worker”?

Cleaner as an essential worker

Over the last few months of the COVID pandemic we have become familiar with many new terms – including coronavirus, sheltering in place, social distancing, maintaining our “bubble” and many more.

But the term I have found most interesting is “Essential Worker”. Who or what IS an essential worker – and why?

First, let’s set the scene:

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted an unprecedented number of people around the world. Apart from the remotest tribes and most rural villages, everyone has been impacted in some way. And it’s interesting to see that (so far) this crisis has been “good” for the planet and the natural world as less human activity means less human encroachment and pollution.

And COVID has also impacted each and every one of us in ways – and a volume – that we could not have foreseen or expected. Those impacts have been far-reaching and cumulatively add-up – and if we don’t acknowledge and grieve our “COVID losses” it could negatively impact our mental health.

But despite all the challenges, this pandemic has also allowed many of us to become more aware of what really matters in life. Food. Financial Security. Freedom. Relationships (Love and Community). Kindness. And Bathroom Tissue 😉

And so to “Essential Workers”.

As the pandemic gradually closed down our stores, offices, restaurants and other workplaces – we became acutely aware of the one workplace that could not be closed – hospitals.

Well, hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, because even as the COVID crisis continues we still have health issues that require a doctor’s surgery visit whether it’s an unusual rash, a broken arm – or a strange lump somewhere it shouldn’t be. And we still need hospital emergency departments, cancer treatments and obstetrics departments…

So, the first kind of “Essential Workers” we all probably think of are:

1) Health Workers

Nurses, Doctors, Surgeons, Paramedics, Ambulance Drivers, Diagnostic Technicians, Pharmacists, Midwives and many more.

But instead I ask you to step sideways from the health workers, to think about who is necessary to keep hospitals running.

What about Cleaners/Janitors, Administrators, Maintenance Workers?

In other words these are the people who are less glamorous – but ESSENTIAL to the running of the hospital.

  • Imagine a world with no cleaners (especially during COVID!)
  • Imagine no administrators to plan out the nursing shifts, order medications or even ensure everyone gets paid.
  • And imagine that the elevators or worse – medical equipment – stopped working! Without those maintenance workers and the technology department, where would a hospital be?

So behind every highly trained medical staff member, there is another team of less obvious, but still essential, workers.

So who else is an “Essential Worker”?

Who do you think of next as an “Essential Worker”? I’m choosing farmers and grocery store staff. Was that what you were thinking?

There’s an old saying: “You need a doctor, lawyer or preacher once in your life, but you need a farmer three times a day!”

2) Farmers and Grocery Store Staff

So, yes, we need health workers to keep us alive in a crisis. But we need food – or we die…

Most grocery store staff have been going into work every day, still being paid low or minimum wage. And while the rest of us stay home, safe, except for “necessary” trips to get food, grocery store workers have been going into work every day, putting themselves and their families at risk. They come into contact with hundreds of people daily – and handle items that have been handled by hundreds of people every day. There has been no furloughing for them.

And it’s not just the checkout staff, it’s the people to stock the shelves, maintain the equipment, manage the stores – and clean them.

AND, Before the food even gets to our shelves, we also need our farmers – the people who:

  1. Manage the farms and grow our food
  2. Pick or harvest the food.

Did you know that many countries rely on seasonal farm-workers who come (often) from poorer countries, travelling great distances and leaving their families behind to harvest our food! They perform back-breaking work – and are low-paid.

And beyond the farmers and farm-workers, what about the people who:

  • Wash or package and process our food?
  • “Keep on trucking”? Driving trucks and trains, shipping, flying planes and operating cranes that move containers that deliver groceries around the world.
  • Maintain our bodies or water – and water systems? Without water we’ll all die within a week…
An Exercise on Interconnectedness…

This makes me think of a Buddhist exercise which explores our interconnectedness.

  1. Start by choosing an “object”. This could be a child’s toy or your restaurant meal
  2. Now consider absolutely everyone that has been involved in that something reaching us in its current form.
    • Begin by thinking about the raw materials that go into the item. Who sourced them, picked them, produced or mined those elements?
      • Who else might work in, manage and maintain the farm/s or mine/s where the raw materials for your object was sourced, made and/or processed?
    • Now consider the design, manufacturing and packaging (and what about the design of the packaging?!)
      • Who else might work in, manage and maintain the factory/ies or packaging plant/s where the raw materials for your object was sourced, made and/or processed? Who maintains the computers or machines that designed or made your something?
    • What about shipping and delivery?
      • Consider all the steps. From farmer’s field to packaging plant, from packaging plant to distribution depot, to supermarket store room to the person who stocks the shelf and then sells you the object… It may include going by road, rail and sea.
  3. Finally, take a step back and consider who raised all these people involved in producing and bringing you your chosen object? Who taught them at school? Who supports them now?

And as you do this exercise and think about everyone who was involved, you begin to realise how interconnected we all are…

Who else is an “Essential Worker”?

Well there are many I haven’t named yet. Who comes up for you? I’m thinking:

3) Garbage collectors

  • Imagine our streets and homes if garbage collectors had decided to stay home during this COVID crisis?
  • This is a job I’ve always been glad that someone else does.
  • Do we appreciate our garbage collectors enough? Why are these “less pleasant” but essential jobs often so poorly paid and respected?

4) School Teachers

  • I don’t think there’s a parent alive who doesn’t have gratitude for school-teachers right now.
  • As parents have grappled with home-schooling and supporting their children with online learning, a new respect for the value and importance of teachers has emerged.
  • Yet, we reserve prestige for the highly educated professors who teach at universities, while it’s the everyday school-teachers who shape every single child. It’s school teachers who are with our children as they form core beliefs about themselves and their world, and give them the essentials to get by in the world…

5) Carers for our Elderly and Vulnerable

  • We saw how COVID devastated care homes – many that should have had better cleaning procedures.
  • But are homes are often strapped for cash. They have limited staff, and employ care-aides to do the physically demanding work – lifting people, wiping backsides, cleaning up messes.
  • Those care aides are hourly paid, often low or minimum wage with little job security. In many cases those jobs are taken by immigrants who can’t get other work – and who may need to work several jobs to get by.
  • Either way, these jobs are hard, physical and sometimes unpleasant. They don’t get to spend “quality time” with the care home residents like the nurses.
  • Yet, these are the people who are in intimate physical contact with our loved ones – parents, grandparents, severely mentally disabled children.
  • So why don’t we appreciate and pay these carers more?

So, that’s my main list of people who are under-appreciated.

Who can you think of who are undervalued in our society, and likely underpaid with low job security?

So, beyond COVID, are we valuing the right people as a society?

When we think of who’s “important” in the world, we probably think of doctors and surgeons, lawyers and judges, high level politicians, financiers, architects, university professors, scientists. Many people idolise movie and sports ‘stars’.

Then there are essential people we already (largely) value like fire-fighters, the police (although it would be great to see better training), and the armed forces.

And finally, nurses. They may be hugely appreciated right now, but once life returns to “normal” will we remember the long hard hours they work caring for our sick – and keeping our hospitals running?

Instead, in this article we’ve explored people we have undervalued for far too long. People who are essential to the smooth running of our society who are usually low-paid – yet in many cases do challenging jobs that most of us are just glad that someone else is doing.

But we can do things differently. We may not personally be able to increase someone’s wages, but we can think differently about the people who perform these roles. We can be grateful. We can give these jobs respect – and say thank-you!

Let’s value the everyday that keeps our society alive instead of glamour, fame, money and success…

So as we move forwards out of this COVID crisis, I urge everyone to consider re-prioritising and re-focusing our admiration.

Who could you admire and support going forwards?

Here’s my list that I’ll be appreciating more:

  • The school teachers who educate our children (instead of the sports stars and movie stars who entertain them).
  • The public servants who keep the country running no matter who’s in charge (as opposed to the politicians with their jazzy slogans and often empty promises).
  • The technical and mechanical service people who maintain hospital technology and other essential public services – like our water, electricity and internet (instead of exciting start-up companies who build whizz apps and computer games).
  • Farmers and grocery store workers (instead of famous chefs, fancy restaurants and cooking show hosts).
  • Cleaners in all walks of life.
  • Carers for the elderly and vulnerable.
  • Garbage collectors (instead of the rich CEOs who head up companies that create the products we consume).
  • Administrators (and not just the super-educated and highly paid professionals they support).

Thank-you grocery store staff!

Thank-you farmers and farm-workers!

Thank-you cleaners!

Thank-you carers!

Thank-you school teachers!

Thank-you public service maintenance workers!

Thank-you public service administrators!

Thank-you garbage collectors!

Thank-you to all the transporters of food and essential goods!

Who did l miss? Comment and tell me below!


For me, Fierce Kindness is about connection; to ourselves, our broader community and our larger world. Fierce Kindness is also about seeing the truth of things – however hard that may be. Because without the truth, how can we make (the right) changes to make the world a better place?

Despite the challenges, this crisis has helped us all focus on what – and who – really matters in our world.

Let’s see if we can keep that going forwards…

“Change the world, start with you!”

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