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The Slippery Definition of an “Essential” Worker

Whose work is indispensable in a pandemic?

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

When the Department of Homeland Security released its criteria for “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” in March, it included a dizzying array of jobs across a host of industries: the flight attendants who wash their hands 20 times in two hours as they check seat belts and distribute drinks; the sanitation workers, still making their rounds through infected cities; and everyone along the food supply chain, from immigrant meatpackers to the grocery store workers, line cooks, and delivery drivers we encounter every day.

Many of the jobs on DHS’s list make intuitive sense. We need paramedics, chaplains, and doctors to care for the sick, loggers and mill workers to make all that toilet paper, and warehouse workers to pack and ship it. But in an American pandemic, administrators who file health insurance claims are also “essential.” So are coffin-makers. Restaurants can claim they, too, are essential, giving rise to a darkly funny meme started by a Twitter user who posted a photo of himself dressing for work in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone costume with the caption, “How TF am I an essential worker?”

He and thousands of others are at work, risking their lives, in part because of the slipperiness of the adjective “essential.” It can refer both to what a person or thing is and to what it does, or to what makes it “indispensably requisite,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. DHS, in drafting a list of essential workers, had to decide whose work was indispensable, an intrinsically subjective judgment. The question is not whose work is essential, but for whom it is essential. As Kirk Gibbs, an electrician, put it to The New York Times: “I’m essential to the pocketbooks of rich contractors and essential for spreading the virus, but that’s about it.”

It is tempting to imagine that Covid-19, like a biblical plague, will issue just retribution to the pharaohs of our time for undervaluing work that really matters. But the pandemic’s more immediate effect may be to illuminate the routine cruelties of more normal times. The Times recently reported that immigrant farmworkers have begun carrying a copy of the DHS order identifying them as critical infrastructure workers, in case ICE or local police stop them. It won’t protect them from deportation. They have long been essential, even as the cruelest elements of state power deem them illegal and disposable; now, they have the paperwork to prove it.