Editorial: Who are essential workers?    



It was clear at the beginning of the pandemic that health care professionals, emergency responders, teachers, grocery store workers and pharmacy clerks were essential workers. The definition of “essential” was reserved for those people who physically showed up to work with the public – at great risk to themselves – to keep society going.  

Yes, there were many more people who performed their jobs throughout the pandemic, but they did so from home or in offices that were closed to the public. Does that make them essential workers? 

Who should be deemed an essential worker is becoming increasingly more important as money flows into the state and decisions are made around so-called “premium pay” allowable under the American Rescue Act Play (ARPA).  

The state of Maine is awash in federal aid. Across the state, local municipalities have raked in nearly $500 million from ARPA. The first half of those funds were distributed in April and the second half will arrive next spring. All money must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026. 

As local towns and cities begin to decide where to spend that money, there are some obvious choices. In Hancock County, matching funds were given recently to municipalities that provided premium pay for first responders. That makes sense. There are few people more essential than police and firefighters.  

From there it is only going to be trickier to figure out who comes next. It is difficult to decide who should get the funds without upsetting another group of workers. We understand that. After all, people go to work to get paid, and who doesn’t like to be paid a little more?  

The rules surrounding the ARPA funds are not yet settled, but they do carve out exceptions for state and local entities to disburse funds to private businesses and citizens. This unusual allowance flies in the face of the long-standing concept of not using public money in private settings. But in this case, there are many private sector employees who deserve not only the premium pay allowance, but also the recognition that their jobs are essential and that the community is grateful for their service.  

According to a report from the Brookings Institution, “higher income workers are six times more likely to be able to work from home than low-wage workers, who have fewer choices for safe employment.” While everyone in society benefited from their continued work during the pandemic, the risk was concentrated among workers with a median wage of $15 an hour. If bonus payments are going to be made, those who risked the most while earning the least need to be rewarded. We urge municipalities to look at low- or moderate-income earners first.  

Municipalities should also look at the optics of providing taxpayer-funded premium pay for their own employees who worked from home or in an office that was closed to the public for months. For those looking in, the idea of paying a bonus to a town official who makes well above the minimum wage doesn’t really pass the straight-face test.  

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