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“Nonessential workers” and the essential dignity of work

Distinguishing the essential from the nonessential has consequences. Questioning this distinction is healthy and part of living in a functioning democracy.

A man in New York City picks up an item at the grocery store March 28, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Caitlin Ochs, Reuters)

Over the past several weeks, protestors have assembled outside state houses across the country asking the government to re-open the economy. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was recently asked about these protests and his reply was dismissive: “If you want to go to work, go take the job as an essential worker. Do it tomorrow.”

When a reporter pressed him on his response, Cuomo shot back: “You can get a job as an essential worker, so now you can go to work and you can be an essential worker and you’re not going to kill anyone.”

Amidst this pandemic, Americans have learned what types of workers the government deems essential. They include hospital employees, pharmacists, medical researchers, food supply chain workers, energy and water suppliers, those involved in defense, national security and trash collection services.

In some cases, the government’s designation has been a bit less obvious. For example, liquor stores have generally been deemed “essential”. In California, employees in the cannabis industry are considered essential.

Though some states designate abortion services as nonessential, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared them essential. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other professional medical groups have lobbied hard to keep abortion essential.

Early on, some states tried to label entire industries nonessential – like the gun industry – before the federal government overruled them.

One industry that received a bit of a split decision: education. The pandemic closed school buildings from Maine to California. Teachers and kids were sent home. The traditional delivery system used to provide education effectively was deemed nonessential. Learning itself, however, was still declared essential. In March, it was beamed into our living rooms, with kids tethered to screens and moms and dads enlisted as tutors. Homeschooling was ruled the essential mode of delivering education, which is interesting given that government-run public school systems and the teacher’s unions associated with them typically look askance at such arrangements, deeming them not suitable for providing essential learning.

Another area of life that our government decided is nonessential: religion. At least public services. The Catholic Church was told to keep parishioners away from any in-person Mass and to lock the doors and seal off pews, effectively eliminating the Sacrament of Holy Communion for our country’s 51 million Catholics.

Given the First Amendment’s explication that government shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, this has raised some rather foreseeable problems. Police fined and dispersed parishioners participating in a drive-through service at a Baptist church in Mississippi. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio – Governor Cuomo’s Democratic colleague – personally traveled to the site of a funeral service in Brooklyn for a popular Jewish rabbi to monitor the situation. Confronting a crowd of mourners, he instructed police to make arrests.

This struck some as especially odd, considering that just weeks earlier this same mayor quietly got in an apparently essential workout at the YMCA just as New York City was closing gyms and other “nonessential” businesses.

Which begs the question: when we say “nonessential” – nonessential to whom, exactly?

For thee but not for me?

With regard to employment, as millions of Americans have been forced out of work not by the pandemic itself but by the government’s response to the pandemic, who determines and how we determine what is essential deserves some critical thought.

After all, this determination has consequences – not just, of course, for the workers themselves but for their families.

“Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe argues that there are no nonessential workers. He makes the point that telling the unemployed who want to work that they can’t because the government doesn’t think their work is essential adds insult to injury. “Language matters,” Rowe says, adding that the impact of “removing those workers from our economy” is devastating – both to our macroeconomy and to the workers themselves.

CNN, however, disagrees.

A recent online article titled “The dangerous morality behind the ‘Open it Up’ movement”, by CNN’s Religion Editor Daniel Burke, even argues that those who express dissent in the face of the shutdowns are being “utilitarian” and engaging in “moral inconsistency”. His claim apparently assumes that those who question the mass closing of the economy are conservatives, many of whom are prolife. This, he contends, is unconscionable because pro-lifers are supposed to believe all human life is sacred and closing the economy to nonessential workers is necessary in order to protect innocent human life. In effect, it is essential for the nonessential to shut up; any counterargument is immoral.

But does Burke really make a good argument? Is it even an argument at all?

It’s a cute take but it misses entirely the important question being asked: is shutting down the economy in perpetuity the only way to protect life during this crisis? Is it even the most effective way to do it?

CNN doesn’t think these are worthy questions. Dissent is dismissed out of hand. Inquiry declared out of bounds by the free press.

But asking these questions is…well…essential. Essential for pursuing truth.

In that spirit, how about this question: is CNN’s newfound enthusiasm for defending human life genuine? Does the network believe that protecting innocent life is vital even when the mom didn’t intend the pregnancy? Is it suggesting that it believes human life is more important than a “woman’s choice” or “control over her own body”?

Clearly, no. Apparently, it’s more fun for CNN to pretend otherwise and try to discredit pro-lifers in the process. Win-win.

Again: distinguishing the essential from the nonessential has consequences. Questioning this distinction is healthy and part of living in a functioning democracy; we should be able to do it without fear of what folks at CNN or anyone else might say.

As we do, we should remember what Catholic social teaching says about the role work plays in human life. In the encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls work “a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth; a path to growth, human development and fulfillment” (128). The Pope adds (quoting in part from Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate), “It is essential that ‘we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone’” and that the “broader objective should always be to allow (human beings) a dignified life through work.”

Pope John Paul II explains that work is necessary for understanding one’s connection to God.

Man must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history. (Laborem Exercens, 16)

He adds: “Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being” (Laborem Exercens, 9).

So when someone at CNN or elsewhere declares that we shrug and nod as our government asserts that our neighbor’s work and the dignity he derives from it is ‘nonessential’, we might remember Pope John Paul II’s words in Centesimus Annus:

The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace. (43)


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About Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D. 3 Articles
Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D., is a Professor of Marketing at Providence College. His work has been published in National Catholic Register, Catholic Business Journal, and numerous academic journals including Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Industrial Marketing Management, and Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, among others.

12 Comments

  1. It is not true medical workers are essential. Only the one working with Covid19 patients are essential. The rest, including orthopedic surgeons, cardiac specialists, nurses, family physicians, dentists, (and yes, various administrators and office workers) etc, can get unemployment.
    .
    It was known back in early April, maybe even late March, this would happen.
    .
    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/04/02/coronavirus-pandemic-jobs-us-health-care-workers-furloughed-laid-off/5102320002/

      • You believe wrong. I got the point. Few people despise the words “essential” and “non-essential” more than I, as I have seen livelihoods destroyed, including that of my son’s.
        .
        I’ve had three medical procedures cancelled/postponed. My husband had one, but was finally able to get into the his physician. I know two people with conditions that would make getting this coronavirus a real issue whose doctors will not see them due to our state-manadated lockdown.
        .
        A number of pro-house arrest folks, if you told them any medical worker was facing ruin, would be shocked.

  2. “Another area of life that our government decided is nonessential: religion. At least public services. The Catholic Church was told to keep parishioners away from any in-person Mass and to lock the doors and seal off pews, effectively eliminating the Sacrament of Holy Communion for our country’s 51 million Catholics.

    Given the First Amendment’s explication that government shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, this has raised some rather foreseeable problems. Police fined and dispersed parishioners participating in a drive-through service at a Baptist church in Mississippi. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio – Governor Cuomo’s Democratic colleague – personally traveled to the site of a funeral service in Brooklyn for a popular Jewish rabbi to monitor the situation. Confronting a crowd of mourners, he instructed police to make arrests.”

    So according to our government, God and the act of worshipping God is non-essential. All Church affairs, Catholic and non-Catholic, are essential, for prayer and prayerful devotion are essential, important, and necessary, while the Catholic Mass is a requirement to our survival. Like Padre Pio said, “It is easier for the earth to exist without the sun than without the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

    • Matthew, I feel your pain. However, sacrifices of the soul will always see the light of God. If I can save one person’s life by abiding by the CDC rules, being classified an essential worker pales by comparison. Unfortunately, the divisivinesses displayed by the mobs on the steps of statehouses have little consideration for innocent life. God will help those who try to help themselves and society.

  3. The continued butchering of the English language is amazing.The word “hero” used to mean something entirely different then how it’s used these days.Another word we find applied frequently by a certain percentage of our citizens.Is “historic”.
    The list of these words used improperly.Is as long as Santa Clauses lists of Good
    Boy’s and Girl’s.

  4. Regarding the CNN dismissal of those who question one-size-fits-all LOCKDOWN, we read: “It’s a cute take but it misses entirely the important question being asked: is shutting down the economy in perpetuity the only way to protect life during this crisis? Is it even the most effective way to do it?”

    Exactly so. The original and revered modeling ASSUMPTIONS were that every infected carrier would infect six others (the exponential chair reaction) rather than maybe two, and that everyone was equally [equally, of course!] vulnerable to morbidity. Health facilities will be overwhelmed and the entire health system will collapse! Chicken Little is God! Everyone, without exception, shelter in place! Stay home, and prevent the needed herd immunity for the 99 percent! Release masked felons from overcrowded jails, while at the same time threatening to jail the gainfully employed for putting food on the table! Throw monopoly money everywhere and infect entire future generations with the inevitable pay-down!

    Well, the novel and COMPLICATED “truth” seems to be somewhere in between. That a lockdown “in perpetuity” is, at least, hyperbole. That there is/was a need to flatten the curve in conformance with the number of available hospital beds even for the vulnerable few percent. That a 14-day asymptomatic factor is/was in play.

    NOW—as with forest fires that have been contained—in a,most perpetuity we might be dousing local flareups, here and around the world. And as a plus, overall, a less presumptive mix of “globalism” now with less porous borders, and vice versa.

    And, apart from the essential and restored dignity of human work, the other “truth” is that the essential sacramental life has to be re-ignited from the ground up as being MORE than makeshift virtual reality. This when our current “51 million Catholics” used to be 65 million, and in a new landscape of scorched-earth ecclesial finances…

  5. Both government and the media have promoted an hysterical frenzy of fear among a segment of the population which is itself unhealthy. It is true that some hospitals are closing down and laying off nurses and doctors, because the “optional” surgeries they do like non-emergency knee replacement, heart stents and other such things have been banned. However, hospitals make much of their money from such services.Its already well known that many small businesses have closed and will NEVER reopen,those jobs permanently lost, thanks to these baseless draconian measures. What can we say about the bishops and cardinals who shuttered our churches, cancelled Easter and Holy Week, and have remained mum to the closure as left leaning blue state governors continue to extend the shut down indefinitely? And seem to remain speechless as power mad officials use drones to observe its citizens, arrest and jail small business owners who attempt to re-open, and encourage fellow citizens to fink on each other, all in good imitation of the actions of communist and fascist nations.The Mayor of Kansas City even wanted churches to take the NAMES and contact info of those attending worship services and hand it in to authorities. The church leaders need to begin to speak up NOW. Not to “negotiate” an opening date with the govt. To TELL the govt officials when and how they plan to re-open. Or move to take this civil rights issue to COURT.

  6. One of the confusions regarding the dignity of labor these days is that it has become inextricably entwined with purely economic work. One of the basic principles of Keynesian economics is that only a “job” entitles someone to income. In modern political logic, this translates into the presumed need for “job creation” solely for the purpose of obtaining sufficient income. Job creation, however, does not enhance human dignity; nothing, in fact, is more degrading to human dignity than to be forced to do a “job” that is unnecessary merely to obtain income, tying someone down to meaningless labor and preventing him or her from the real work of acquiring and developing virtue, what Aristotle called “leisure work,” or the work of civilization and personal growth. “Job creation” smacks of the sorts of tasks invented to keep slaves busy to justify feeding them until they’re really needed.

    Ironically, Pope Leo XIII gave the solution to the problem of meaningless work more than a century ago in Rerum Novarum by describing meaningful work:

    “5. It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”

    Now, the only problem with what Leo XIII said is with his prudential suggestion as to how capital acquisition should be financed: by cutting consumption and saving. This, however, is not the only way to save. Most new capital formation in fact, especially during periods of rapid or intensive economic growth, is not financed by cutting consumption in the past, but by increasing production in the future: “future savings” as opposed to “past savings.” (This, by the way, is considered “the first principle of finance”: to know the difference between a mortgage, which is “past savings,” and a bill of exchange, which is “future savings.”)

    Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler solved Leo XIII’s inadvertent difficulty in the two books they co-authored, “The Capitalist Manifesto” (1958) and “The New Capitalists” (1960), neither of which actually describes “capitalism” understood as concentrated private ownership of the means of production. The subtitle of the second book is revealing: “A Proposal to Free Economic Growth From the Slavery of Savings.” Kelso and Adler didn’t mean that savings are unnecessary, but that savings should work for people, rather than people work for savings.

    Both books are available as free downloads from the website of the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice:
    https://www.cesj.org/resources/free-ebooks/

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