Essential workers were lauded as national heroes during the onset of the pandemic but was a sense of elevated significance and dignity felt at an institutional and individual level for lower-tier African American workers? Initial findings from the Dignity of Fragile Essential Work in a Pandemic study suggest not.

A preview of the ongoing project comes in the form of an essay, titled “Resurfacing Dignity as a Tool for the Unionization of African American Lower-Tier Workers”, by Alford Young Jr., Edgar G. Epps Collegiate Professor and Associate Director of the Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan, which challenges the widely held belief that the pandemic increased the significance of essential workers and attempts to find a pathway to attaining dignity. The investigation, funded by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, aims to interview 120 African American food service workers, gig drivers, grocery and retail workers, health care assistants, and other workers that are classified as minimally skilled yet highly significant to the well-being of other people.

Interviewees reported recognizing that their work became, if it was not already, indispensable to their communities but also that this increased sense of personal value and dignity did not necessarily translate to the workplace. The nature of their work often involved being on the front-lines where social distancing and sanitizing were not enforced or an option. Despite these factors putting lower-tier workers at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, none of the interviewees in the essay reported receiving hazard pay. While many Americans have returned to their pre-pandemic routines, the interviewees reported feeling the mental, physical, and financial burdens of the pandemic to this day. 

How are these findings pertinent as we shift into a post-pandemic world? Workplace trends that took place during the height of the pandemic were not novel and this three-year time period, in a sense, was a microcosm of trends that have existed and continue to evolve over time. These trends include increased workload on lower-tier workers without a respective increase in pay or access to healthcare, lower health and safety regulations for lower-tier workers, etc. This essay sheds light on the ongoing need for critical thinking geared towards protecting African American fragile workers and proposes the potential for unionization as a solution to reaffirming the dignity these workers feel should be associated with their work. The link to unionization, a potential next step, as well as other solutions, will be explored further as the investigation continues. 

You can read excerpts from these interviews and the full essay here.