No more “normal”

“I’ll take 30 bags of mulch.”

“Alright, sir. No problem.” Fortunately, he’s got a low-slung trailer, which makes pulling the 40lb bags off of the stacks and tossing them a bit easier. Not like the pickup trucks that the suburban cowboys drive, where you have to hoist the bags over your head to chuck them into the back. Screen Shot 2021-05-11 at 7.43.35 PMSedan trunks and minivans aren’t too bad to load either, but I’ll never understand why you would want a vehicle where the loading bed is four feet off the ground when the only off-roading you’re likely to do is pulling into the driveway from the cul-de-sac.

I’m surprised at how well my 53-year old body has acclimated to the work, after months of desk jobs and general pandemic-induced lethargy. So far no back injuries or repetitive motion disorders, and I haven’t given myself a heart attack yet. But chucking mulch part-time isn’t exactly the best use of my skill set in my opinion, and judging from the huge “Help wanted” sign in front of the building, a lot of other people feel the same way. The general attitude towards lifting 16 tons in a shift hasn’t changed much since Tennessee Ernie Ford’s day apparently.

As the nation emerges from a year of COVID and political instability, business owners are bemoaning the fact that workers are reluctant to get back into the game, particularly in the low-wage industries where employees were hardest hit by the pandemic. According to a study from the University of California, line cooks had the highest mortality rate of any occupation from COVID. Other essential workers who faced higher risks were in the healthcare field, particularly home health aides, one in five of whom were already living below the poverty line before the pandemic.

Waves of sudden, unexpected death and suffering have a way of changing people’s priorities and calculations. Workers are, not surprisingly, rethinking just how much they want to sacrifice for employers who often lobbied to have COVID restrictions lifted in futile and costly efforts to “restart the economy.”  Many have come to the conclusion that while the old normal had been barely tolerable, the new normal had better feature higher wages, more life-friendly scheduling and less toxic management. They didn’t stay at their essential jobs and risk their lives in return for lip service about how things would get better.

I take a break and listen to my fellow workers discuss cryptocurrency. The solution to making life better for those who kept the system running during the worst healthcare crisis in a century is not banking on meme stocks that are vulnerable to jokes told by Elon Musk. It’s in not allowing ourselves to be gaslit by employers who wish to paint those who won’t work for sub-living wages as “lazy,” and realize that we were the ones holding society together by the skin of its teeth while “job creators” like Musk were nowhere to be found. They owe us, and we shouldn’t be afraid to demand a future fit for the ones who risked it all and paid the highest price.

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