Who’s Essential Now?

Now that we’ve been working, learning, teaching, living, coping, and doing everything at home for a while, it’s time to take stock. The biggest shock to the system was in the early days when we went from sprinting to figuring things out. Now we have a clear view of where we are fine and where we are not. We have new found appreciation for all the help, support, and expertise we used to enjoy when running our lives and raising our kids was a team effort. With no one else allowed into our house (no in-laws, sitters, tutors, friends) or outside activities (school, sports, dance, taekwondo, theater, movies, etc.). Just us. All. The. Time. We have some new clarity. 

We now have a MUCH clearer sense of who is essential in our lives. We also learned what our lives would be (ARE) without them. We learned who we value most. 

Then I did some research on how much we value them in terms of compensation. Then I got angry. Please join me in my walk down outrage lane. 

Who we value right now: 

  • Family (first and always, and sorry there’s not financial compensation for that) 
  • Healthcare workers on the front lines of care-giving (Doctors, Nurses, Respiratory Therapists, etc.) 
  • First responders (Police, Fire, Paramedic/EMT/Ambulance) 
  • Teachers (elementary, middle, high school, special ed)
  • Retirement/Assisted living caregivers 
  • Janitorial/cleaning staff (especially housekeepers)
  • Grocery store workers 
  • Warehouse, distribution, logistics, and postal workers
  • Please add to this list, as I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone who has now become more important to someone

These are the people who save our and our loved ones’ lives, teach our children better than we can, care for our parents when we cannot, clean our public and work spaces (where those other things happen), provide us our food and necessities. They are who matter now, providing food, clothing, shelter, health, and happiness. 

So, let’s look at average starting salaries. This list is pulled from the US Department of Labor and other databases: 

  • Doctors: $201,440
  • Nurses: $77,460
  • Respiratory therapist: $63,950
  • Police: $67,620
  • Fire: $54,650
  • Paramedic: $38,830
  • Ambulance drivers: $29,600   
  • Teachers: $63,820  
  • Assisted living caregivers: $26,440
  • Janitorial/cleaning Staff: $30,010
  • Grocery store workers:  $24,400
  • Warehouse, distribution, logistics: $36,030
  • Postal workers: $50,610
  • Dog/Cat/Pet: Priceless

Let’s contrast that with some of the other jobs that are ranked among the top earners. This is not a judgement (yet), just a data sort. This data comes from US DoL as well as California salary disclosures: 

  • Petroleum Engineers: $156,780
  • Marketing Managers: $149,200
  • Financial Managers: $147,530
  • Lawyers: $145,300
  • Advertising /PR Managers: $143,330
  • Mayor: $190,942
  • Chief Investment Officer: $1,556,842
  • Head Coach UCLA Football: >$2,000,000

The purpose of this is NOT to devalue the latter, it’s to raise the value of the former. It is to simply help our public and private sector compensation and budgeting experts work with our elected officials and executives to right this wrong, to recognize who we find we really need, and to compensate them appropriately. 

Some say this is really difficult and really complicated. I have worked in leading change for 30 years, and actually teach it at a graduate level at a premier university. “Difficult” and “complicated” are ways to delay, diminish, and resist change. Important change is driven by clarity, urgency, and happens despite foreseen and unforeseen complexities and difficulties. 

The remedy for this is to make the complicated simple and the difficult easy. By one report, COVID-19 sparked five years worth of change in five months, and in some cases five weeks. We were able to move companies, universities and institutions online and to working from home in days and weeks.  Many of those institutions had been researching, considering, contemplating, testing, debating, discussing, and delaying that for years. 

So, let’s make this simple and easy. We value teachers more than ever. We get outraged that EMTs and Paramedics cannot afford healthcare insurance. We cannot believe that companies are not doing more for the safety of employees in warehouses, food processing centers, and supermarkets – some of whom are dying so that we have food in the stores and homes. At the same time, we see income at the higher ends getting significantly higher as a result of COVID-19. Jeff Bezos is the poster child for both sides of this equation.  

As I look at what our mayor and city council members have done during this pandemic response, I have a recommendation for budgeting next year. Again, simple and easy: 

Mayors, take your starting salary number. Put that as the starting salary for the teachers in your elementary, middle, and high schools. Now, take the starting salary for elementary teachers (as there are many levels, just pick one), take that number and make it your salary. You can do the same thing for police, fire, EMT, paramedic… you see where this is going. 

Budgets will be mentioned as a constraint. Yes, property tax revenue (which funds education in California) and sales tax revenues aren’t going to be what they used to be. We already know there are going to be cuts in local, state, and Federal budgets to pay for the COVID-19 response. We may want to look at other expenditures, projects, tax credits, etc. to control the outflow. If a new tax was proposed (without loopholes or write-offs) or a bond that would direct 100% of the revenue to teachers’ and first responders’ salaries, you might find that it’s an easier argument now than it was even six months ago.

Teachers who were able to go on strike in 2019 saw a public rally behind them. Can you imagine what that rally will look like if/when they go on strike now? Last year parents only intellectually knew what it takes to teach, engage, challenge, support, and care for their children all-day, everyday. Today, we have a gut level understanding of how much expertise, experience, and energy it takes to do it for 1, 2, or 3 kids, and can only imagine doing it for 20, 30, or more kids EVERY DAY. 

Crises create clarity. Who we are on one side of a crisis is different than who we are on the other – hopefully, and usually for the better. The roles we value in society are changing. The importance of the essential workers now is beyond lip service. It is time for us – all of us, and especially the very wealthy – to put our money where our values and our words are.  

Don’t just call them heroes. Don’t just post emojis about how much you heart them. Pay them what we have all learned they are worth. That’s how we will honor our heroes.  

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