I distinctly remember the first time I saw a yard sign thanking essential workers. It was early March and the streets in my Louisville neighborhood were just becoming desolate enough that when I rode my scooter — an old 50cc cherry-red Honda that caps out at like 40 miles per hour — there were no cars to impatiently rev their engines behind me on 35 mile per hour residential stretches. I was at a stoplight calculating how many rolls of toilet paper and canned beans (a rolling pandemic cliché, I know) when I noticed the sign stuck on a grassy patch in front of a pale yellow bungalow.
"Thank You, Essential Workers!" was written in big, bold letters above drawings of various employees: a postal worker, a grocery store employee, a sanitation worker, a doctor and nurse. The illustrations were rendered in colorful brush strokes, like something out of a Richard Scarry picture book. The workers looked calm, almost subdued — both a world away from the reality that many of those same workers would spend the next eight months risking their physical health on a daily basis, and an apt depiction of how those workers are expected to keep calm under that immense pressure.
Their faces — with their gentle U-shaped smiles — are the ones I think of when I see those viral videos of angry customers refusing to wear masks in a grocery store, sweeping their arms across a shelf and sending items flying into the aisles to punctuate their rage. They're the ones I think of when I hear about members of the food and beverage industry undergoing de-escalation training to better prepare for those encounters.
And it was their faces I thought of when I heard that two members of the White House housekeeping department had reportedly tested positive for the novel coronavirus following President Donald Trump's diagnosis on Oct. 2nd. According to Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, "when their tests came back positive, they were told to use 'discretion' in discussing it."
The situation is problematic for many reasons; as many quickly pointed out, the housekeeping staff members are not likely to receive the same level of medical care Trump did after being air-lifted to Walter Reed. But it is also emblematic of a slow shift over the course of the pandemic's duration: to many, essential workers are no longer pandemic heroes. They've gone back to being cultural givens, employees whose work is taken for granted and who are expected to silently absorb both risk and abuse from consumers.
The White House serves as a kind of microcosm for this transition.
"It's a huge universe of people that most people don't even know exists at the White House," Kate Andersen Brower, author of "The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House," said in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition last week.
"There [are] about 90 of them," she said. "You have butlers, ushers, painters, engineers and plumbers."
And while the White House told NPR that with the recent positive results of the President and First lady, "staff wear full PPE and continue to take all necessary precautions, which include updated procedures to protect against cross contamination," Brower said that isn't enough.
"This is still putting them at risk," she said. "These are people who feel a great deal of pressure to work. They have mortgages to pay. So it is reckless to put them in this position."
And when the recklessness results in actual diagnoses, like in the case of the two members of the housekeeping staff, they are essentially told to keep quiet. This expectation of putting on a brave face is present in settings closer to home, as well.
James M. is a Kroger employee based in Kansas. He asked that his real name not be used because he feared retribution, but provided Salon with proof of employment.
"Customers are back to complaining about normal everyday things," he said. "I mean, it's pretty clear that customers aren't seeing us as 'heroes' or 'essential workers' anymore when they refuse to wear masks. Corporate is back to pushing things like friendliness, and adding more tasks for us even though we're burned out."
Kroger is one of several supermarket chains that came under fire for discontinuing their "hero pay" initiative, an additional $2 per hour hazard pay enacted in April, in May. As I reported then, Jonathan Williams — the communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, which is the union representing Kroger store associates — said the union was calling on the company to extend the bonus indefinitely until the end of the pandemic.
"As much as Kroger wishes it were so, this is not a normal time and we can't return to normal right now," Williams said. "As some members have pointed out, while we're still being required to wear a mask at work, there is still a hazard. There's still a risk and the dangers are very real. So, if we were 'heroes' last week, why aren't we heroes next week? Nothing has changed."
"[That's] the biggest slap in the face," James said. "That's a pretty clear indication of our status."
James also reports that customers have become increasingly lax when it comes to pandemic-era precautions like social distancing and wearing masks.
"It's like I'm at work every day, anxious about getting sick, but customers are acting like the pandemic is a thing of the past, more concerned about why their coupon didn't work," he said. "My coworkers have been physically threatened and verbally abused at a rate seemingly higher than before the pandemic."
Anecdotally, evidence of people holding the mindset of the pandemic being behind us — or perhaps behind them personally — seems to have increased in my day-to-day life. For example, I joined a Facebook group in late March that was dedicated to highlighting the efforts of local restaurants. For the first few months, people would share photos of the delicious takeout they'd received or would post information on how neighborhood favorites were navigating curbside delivery. Lately, however, it's devolved into people complaining about increased menu prices (much of which can be attributed to lingering distribution and supply issues) and mask requirements for indoor dining.
Last week, my friend who works as an administrative assistant at a doctor's office said a man in the waiting room thoughtlessly put a pen between his teeth while filling out paperwork. When she brought this to his attention, he laughed it off and said, "No worries, I'm clean," then playfully tried to poke her with said pen while she recoiled.
When I was at the grocery store over the weekend, I watched a woman get short with an employee who asked her to walk back a few feet before speaking with him. "I was going to ask you where the almond butter was, but I guess I'll find it myself," she huffed.
When we have a president who has continuously acted like the coronavirus is a hoax, and that any precautions are an overreaction, there's an obvious trickle-down effect in how that attitude pervades our communities. And when politicians, consumers and corporations pretend the pandemic is over, it's frontline workers who pay the price. The advent of the pandemic made us as a society reconsider whose contributions we couldn't live without — let's continue to consider and treat essential workers as such.