Evanston RoundTable, May 20, 2020
They’re sprouting up like brightly colored tulips, the signs all over Evanston that read: “Thank You Health Care & Essential Workers!” and “Not All Heroes Have Capes – Some Wear Scrubs” and “Honk for ur heroes” and more.
Yes, it’s touching, how we Evanstonians love you – package delivery people, garbage haulers, teachers, bus and delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, meat-packers, lawncare workers, hospital personnel, police and fire first responders and the rest – all the thousands of essential workers who put their lives on the line to do the little things that make a big difference in our lives.
Sure, we appreciate you now. But when this is finally over, will we, like callous gigolos, love you and leave you? Maybe – that’s human nature. But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t forget, if we could really do something to show our ongoing and genuine appreciation?
Here’s a suggestion: Raise their pay. In Illinois, the current minimum wage is $9.25 an hour, scheduled to increase to $15 an hour in 2025. That sounds impressive until you do the math: $15 an hour is $120 a day or $600 a week, which comes to a little over $30,000 a year before taxes. This is not a living wage. According to a 2019 report on CNBC, to live comfortably in Illinois a family of four would need to earn more than double that – $69,760 before taxes to be exact.
So our hard-working, highly esteemed and deeply essential workers would have to hold down two minimum wage jobs at a time. Good luck with that.
Some people object that raising the minimum wage harms small businesses operating on a thin profit margin, especially now when many mom and pop stores are barely hanging on. This might be true, though it does not prevent these same employers from raising prices a few cents on the dollar to enable the living wage.
Would customers flee? Not if we are to believe the signs on their lawns. Perhaps that’s the lesson from this virus-plagued season, namely that it is reasonable to help make workers’ lives more tolerable – since we agree that their work is vital.
Beyond the minimum wage, we might consider a universal basic income and public option or even Medicare for All, part of a vital social safety net that workers need, especially now, when low-wage jobs are being slashed. Yes, that might be an expensive way to say thank you for their essential work, but reducing other government expenditures and raising taxes on multi-millionaires would certainly soften the blow.
Other countries manage it. The New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof reports that in Denmark, which does not even have a minimum wage, fast-food sector employees make about $22 an hour and get “six weeks of paid vacation a year, life insurance, a year’s paid maternity leave and a pension plan.” All that plus the Danish guarantees of medical insurance and paid sick leave.
Americans assume that Nordic “socialism” comes at a high cost in personal taxes, but Mr. Kristof points out the Danes pay on average 19 cents on the dollar more than Americans, which provides them with “free health care, free education from kindergarten through college, subsidized high-quality preschool … and very low levels of poverty, homelessness, crime and inequality.” Nineteen cents is not small change, but all in all it sounds like a good deal to me.
Another lesson from the Season of the Pandemic. Notice how quickly the planet has recovered from pollution thanks to the sudden and sharp reduction in car exhaust and factory pollution? Clean air and clean water are making a nice comeback. Who knew it could happen so quickly? Yes, Mother Nature is resilient.
But what happens when life returns to some kind of normal and factories rev up and driving resumes?
Here is a modest proposal to devise some kind of schedule in which factories take a voluntary day off, a “pollution furlough,” perhaps twice a month. That would reduce both driving and pollution and enable us to preserve some of the hard-won environmental gains of the past two months.
On the home front, we’re all learning that it’s OK to do without. Yes, some of our favorite brands of food are unavailable, and certain cuts of meat impossible to find. Guess what? Just make do, like our grandparents and every generation before them did. Not that long ago people consumed only one or two meat meals a week.
More broadly, practice conservation. Supermarkets and grocery stores short on paper towels? Use less and re-use when you can.
And some personal lessons on the viability of extended family time, working from home and home-schooling, which turn out to promote a wonderful and important togetherness and quality time together. Maybe we can retain some of these practices and make them part of our “new normal” when the time comes.
But that time is not here yet. It’s still foolhardy to resume the “old normal” and rush outside without observing the safety protocols.
Eager to get out? Keep in mind the clergyman in the 1953 version of the movie “War of the Worlds,” who walks out into the killing field reciting the 23rd Psalm: “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I will fear no evil…” and gets zapped by a Martian death ray. All those impatient people – the restriction protesters, the anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers – are risking the Covid-19 death ray if they don’t watch out.
Biggest lesson: Be careful out there.