Why I call Bullshit to “Thank You Essential Workers”

“You have arrived.” 

My phone taunts me as I slow my vehicle to a crawl, searching desperately for a house number above the door, beside the door, on a mailbox somewhere. Then I see the status update drawn in a child’s hand and pasted in the window, “THANK YOU ESSENTIAL WORKERS.” Of course, this is the house.

The first time I saw one of these handmade signs, I felt special, and it put a little extra bounce in my step as I walked the food delivery up to the house. An envelope was taped to the door with “Thank you!” written across the front, a bigger than usual tip left inside. But now, after the hundredth sign, and the thousandth delivery, these signs have started to make me angry.

Over the last two decades we’ve shifted from a world where neighbors spoke opinions to one another during impromptu chats, to the world of status online updates and re-posts. The ease with which we share our thoughts and feelings of the moment on social media means that what feels desperately important to us, loses importance the minute we hit “post,” drowned by a million other voices, each stating their own truths in the exact same words.

It may seem that putting a message of hope or encouragement on a physical poster and taking the time to hang it in the window or stake it in the lawn would be worlds apart from the trivial existence of online status updates.

But to me, it’s no different. 

Without anywhere to go, the bumper sticker-like sayings we usually reserve for online media, have made their way to our houses and lawns.

I am an essential worker at a mid-sized bagel bakery in Upstate NY. I happen to own the place where I work, but this distinguishes me even less now than it did in the days before we all, rich and poor, had to cover half our faces in public. I am uniquely qualified to write on this subject because I am part blue collar food service worker, and part working-from-home, freelance writer. Many of my friends and family have been stuck in their homes for the last 8 weeks, with jobs, and feeling grateful that someone else can deliver the groceries before the kids get hungry.

I, along with any essential worker, am grateful to have a job. It’s even nice to have somewhere to go, a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. Those of us still working with the public enjoy getting some human interaction, joking around with our co-workers and still bringing home a paycheck. But the “thank you essential workers” message intimates that we are doing a public service, that we are unsung heroes sacrificing ourselves for the greater good. The sentiment lacks a true understanding of essentialism. We are essential workers because we perform the very tasks that are taken for granted, precisely because they are so basic.

Aside from a few professions like doctors and nurses, much of the essential work force is not generally servicing some higher calling. There is nothing suddenly special about our work. As soon as the so-called non-essentials have something more to fill our time and thoughts, especially once school is back in session, grocery work will again be treated just as grocery work, nothing to strive for.

For many essential workers, the pandemic has caused changes to our jobs, mostly unpleasant. But the reasons we go to work haven’t changed, and the way we view ourselves hasn’t been altered. 

The shift has been on the outside. 

Folks who work from home are juggling all sorts of responsibilities from homeschooling, to new technology, scheduled meetings for every small task, not to mention rapid changes to their businesses and the fears of an economy in complete upheaval. On top of the complete re-working of our daily routines, essential activities are disrupted and access to essential goods is more difficult. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store requires extra preparation and special timing. Doctors visits, scans and surgeries are postponed until further notice. A knock on the door from the internet maintenance person requires a fraught decision, whether to let him in to work on your modem, or clear the family out first, war-time style…

With all these shifts in our daily routine, it’s made everyone more aware of the things we take for granted, from food distribution networks, to city water-line repair, to tax preparation. But I suspect that the thankfulness felt by so many towards the efforts of the essential workforce is less about gratitude for the other, and more about relief that someone is out there to do the jobs we would not want to do ourselves. 

That’s why I feel put-off by a thank you sign posted on a dark house where I stop to drop off the food delivery. There is a sense that “Thank You Essential Workers” is really saying,

“I’m so thankful you’re out there, so that I can stay put and stay safe in here.”

Essential workers are defined as those who perform a task essential to the health, safety and community wellbeing of the population at large. But the biggest difference between essential and non-essential workers is that our jobs require us to get out of the house and intersect with others. Generally speaking, essential workers have to use their bodies as well as their minds to do their work. Whether it be a reporter traveling to do a story on a small town in Georgia, a janitor who cleans and sanitizes after each teacher has left with the next week’s workload, an aid who lifts her patient into bed at night, or the social worker who counsels from her client’s driveway. Essential worker’s bodies are required to be in a specific place to do their jobs. This type of work often carries increased risk, from traffic accidents for truckers, to those handling heavy machinery in a factory, to the police who still have to respond and neutralize dangerous situations. Since the pandemic swept our country, that risk, and the related stress, has of course increased. Essential workers are struggling with a lack of personal protective equipment. And for those who deal directly with the public, sometimes that risk comes from the brazen disregard of mask ordinances and laws on the part of consumers. It’s those realities that make a simple sign saying thank you, miss the mark.

“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.” — Henri Frederic Amiel

Gratitude is an important sentiment. But for it to hold worth, there has to be action and an element of sacrifice. Not just sacrificing money or time, but a sacrifice of thought. Meaningful gratitude requires creativity. People are smart and they can tell the difference between rehearsed sayings and authenticity. The best gifts are handmade, everyone already knows this. But the best gifts are also personal, meant to please the other in a specific way.

It is possible to offer this kind of gratitude to strangers. 

Place a bundle of hand picked wild flowers for the delivery driver; write a letter to the editor or an open letter on social media detailing your experience with a first responder; leave a tip in an envelope taped to your gas gauge and surprise the worker who comes to take the meter reading; actually call your elected officials and advocate on behalf of small businesses; include a handwritten note the next time you have to drop off documents to an office; avoid truck stops so the truckers can have the place to themselves; always wear a mask in public and keep 6 feet away from workers whether you are instructed to or not; directly compliment your grocery worker on their service, or their appearance, or anything you notice about them personally. There are ways to show appreciation through collective actions, like the 7 o’clock cheer in NYC for frontline health workers. This action works because of the volume of the response, in which millions of people stop what they are doing at a specific time and join in the collective action. In major cities, as time goes by, people get more and more creative, singing, using puppets and making as much noise as they can with simple household items.

When the national impulse, as well as the official advice, is to stay indoors and stay away from people, the need for connection is higher than ever. 

Scattered messages of “thank you” lack human emotion because they lack human connection. 

The next time you want to make a sign, instead call your neighbors and get them in on the effort to create a piece of community artwork that spans a few front lawns, something unique and notable. Anything that is personal will stand out, especially if it requires you to give up something. Gratitude acts are always going to translate better than sayings copied from everyone else and therefore, rendered meaningless.

Many will tell you that just a smile, if that’s all you have, can brighten someone’s day. But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Maybe admit that the smile is less for the other person, and actually meant to make you feel better. A smile can lessen the distance between you and the rest of the world, ease the anxiety you feel at being locked up at home, it can calm your fear and insecurity about the future… And there is nothing wrong with that. Smile, ease the tension. 

Smiling is wonderful medicine.

But if you really care for essential workers, it will probably take a lot more than a simple sign or a shared smile to get us all through this. Find out what you have the capacity to give, get creative, take your time, and act. Creative acts of gratitude that stand out and feel genuine help essential workers get through the day, smile to ourselves, and make our own world a little bit easier to deal with.

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