The myth of the tireless worker

Stop calling essential workers heroes and start actually helping us

5 minute read
Thanks for the thanks. (Photo by Alan Tennyson, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Thanks for the thanks. (Photo by Alan Tennyson, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Remember that scene in every superhero movie where the mayor cuts the protagonists a check for services rendered (less taxes, benefits, and a 401K contribution matched by the city)? Oh, you don’t remember it? That’s because superheroes aren’t paid. Unless the film is a biting satire, they serve society because it’s the right thing to do, not because of anything so crass as money.

Of course, fictional superheroes tend to have either godlike abilities or kingly wealth, meaning they rarely need to think about making rent or paying out of pocket for root canals. It’s an important distinction that American progressives tend to ignore when comparing essential workers like me to tireless superheroes.

Ignoring our humanity

With the new presidential administration proposing an increase in the minimum wage, bootstrap regressives once again raise their banal chorus: life isn’t about handouts. The arguments against a decent wage are made in bad faith and have too many logical fallacies to bother regurgitating here, but one thing these arguments all have in common is refusing to see low-wage workers as fully human.

And social progressives often share this conservative oversight. When they praise low-wage workers by comparing them to superheroes, they often disregard our extremely human needs and limitations, and this goes far beyond the price per hour of our labor.

Behind the smile

Over the past 11 months I've worked in places that proclaimed “Superheroes work here!” I even have a T-shirt to the same effect. I’ve seen ads from restaurants and retailers all proclaiming that their “tireless staff” have been working round the clock to ensure facilities are safe for public use (and public money). I’ve seen the videos of people banging pot lids at shift change in hospitals. Everyone whose work is necessary to a functioning society was branded essential, and the world applauded as we left the safety of our homes and tried to maintain a six-foot distance from our clients and customers, even when the type of service we provided made it impossible to do so in practice.

Low-wage work is often physical work. I’m a caregiver, and my back and my knees are already showing the irreparable wear and tear of bearing other people’s weight (and I get to sit more often than most people making wages like mine). My hourly rate means I almost always have to say yes to extra shifts, and I rarely get adequate rest. I’m tired. Some days I’m too exhausted to take out my contacts before collapsing. The older I get, the more difficult it is to turn five hours of sleep into a productive day. And despite certain assumptions about low-wage workers, most of us are not teens or twentysomethings.

It’s nice to be thought of as Wonder Woman, and the assumption that the real heroes are wearing aprons, scrubs, and plastic nametags certainly comes from a kind place. But expecting ordinary people to continuously shrug off both ordinary stress and the effects of a yearlong pandemic to offer 24 hours of service with a smile is just a different flavor of dehumanization.

Human, no more and no less

The social progressives might exalt us for social media points, and they might even believe that we’re entitled to more than we get, but most people would balk at actually taking on the jobs we do, and the pay isn’t the only reason.

Low-wage work almost always falls under the heading of service, of one kind or another, and because it is compassionate, and takes place at all hours of the day, the people who work 40 hours a week for a regular salary tend to forget that we’re on the clock, that serving is a job for us, and not a way of life. Some of us like the work, some tolerate it, and some outright hate it, but all of us are there first and foremost because living in the world means you’ve got to make money.

I’m neither sub- nor superhuman for choosing a job where I serve others. It falls within my skill set, I’m good at it, and I even enjoy it, but when I work for 15 hours, it’s because rent can’t be paid with eight. I’d rather be at the park, walking around town, or simply at home watching Netflix while a scented candle makes the air smell like a pina colada, but not everyone has that choice.

A job like mine

When White House staffers from the previous administration faced fears about their future job prospects after the riot at the Capitol, left-wing commentators tauntingly told them they could apply to McDonald’s. I have limited empathy for elite government bureaucrats who use their positions to uphold white supremacy, but it’s telling that progressives thought it was fitting to threaten these exiting staffers with a job like mine.

A job like mine would be easier if the pay was better, the breaks were guaranteed, and the workplace norms were designed for the comfort of the employees, but if service workers had actual respect from the general public instead of empty deification, it might be harder to feel superior to us. Low-wage workers give more to society than we get in return, and a move toward equity might force the acknowledgement that we’re real people, not props for right-wing tantrums or left-wing lionization for clout.

Fixing the problems that plague low-wage workers also requires real work, protests, and calling congress. It’s not as simple as a hashtag or as fun as replaying a New Year’s Eve celebration three times a day. It’s easy to call people superheroes in 280 characters or less. It’s a lot harder to make material change in their working life, but that would be downright heroic.

Image description: A photo taken during a highway drive shows a large sign straight ahead with the words "essential workers, we thank you" in yellow lights.

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