If I’d heard the term “essential worker” back in February, my thoughts would immediately have turned to healthcare workers. Even in a pre-COVID world, we needed them, simple as that. Fast forward to late May, and as the (very lengthy and 6ft-spaced) line of people outside my local Trader Joe’s in Austin moves slowly inside the store, people stop to thank the employees for their service.
The definition of “essential worker” has significantly changed, and not just in terms of guidelines or rules. The term itself now holds a meaningful place within our emotions – inspiring gratitude and pride. These are the people who put themselves at risk so that we could stay home. These are the people who helped us all to keep going – providing food, sanitation, infrastructure. These are the people standing outside Trader Joe’s in masks, wiping down hundreds of shopping carts every single day. So when we say “essential worker” now, it’s understood that this means those brave healthcare workers, but also grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, distribution center operators, and even fast food servers. For people like me who have spent their entire career working in an office environment, it’s humbling.
But as stay at home orders end, and hazard pay and benefits for many of these essential workers is walked back, has anything really changed? And if so, what are employers doing to reflect this?
For healthcare workers, “hero status” has rightly been conferred. We literally applaud them for their work. At a time when celebrities feel irrelevant (Madonna bemoaning this “great equalizer” from one of her mansions didn’t sit well with most of us), we are increasingly seeing and hearing from our frontline healthcare workers, and looking up to them as role models. Dr Fauci’s #PassTheMic campaign brings this idea to life with nurses, doctors and medical experts taking over the social media accounts of celebrities including Julia Roberts and Millie Bobby Brown.
We are far from the end of this, and the long-term effect on healthcare professions is yet to be seen. But, for now, while most of us are in awe of them, many people want to be them, with universities reporting a rise in numbers of applications for nursing programs (similar to the surge in recruitment of first responders that followed 9/11).
But what about those essential workers who are on a different frontline? Will the same hero effect remain for our grocery store workers, sanitation workers, and delivery drivers? Many of these often hourly-paid workers felt that they had no choice but to go to work or risk losing wages and benefits. There have been significant difficulties, and we’ve seen walkouts from Amazon, Walmart and Fedex, as well as fast food franchises and Instacart.
No doubt, it’s an unprecedented challenge for employers to manage, but they must realize that their employer brand and reputation are now one-and-the-same as their business brand and reputation. It should come as no surprise to them, precisely because many are seeing record sales at a time when they could not have functioned without their employees taking on some level of personal risk.
For right now, what are they doing to protect their employees? Do they have masks? What kind of leave is available should they become sick? Hazard pay was introduced by many in March, but is now coming to an end or being limited. Yes, stay at home orders may have been lifted, but for workers who come into direct contact with the public, the hazard has not disappeared. The way that employees are treated in these circumstances can – and will – be shared on social media. And it stands to reason that the safer your employees feel, the safer your customers will feel too.
But beyond the immediate crisis, how do employers share the value that their essential workers bring?
It’s even more apparent than usual that businesses thrive because of the people who bring them to life. And those people have stories to share. As essential workers during a global crisis, they have adapted, learned, set standards, and experienced new situations that the rest of us are blind to. Employers should empower their people to share those stories – and to do so authentically. Yes, there will have been times they felt stressed, and scared. There will be times that they didn’t know what to do. Sharing such insights only helps us to better appreciate and respect the work that they do. There will also be great, heart-warming tales that celebrate the impact essential workers have made.
I started this article discussing the definition of “essential worker”. But more important than how we define the term is how we value it. At some point this crisis will come to an end. That won’t make essential workers – all of them – any less essential. By celebrating the efforts and endurance of their people, employers can help to make sure that we don’t forget that value, and in doing so magnify their own employer brands and their meaning in society.
April Bryce, Director of Creative and Strategy
Havas People North America