As Disciplining Labor Becomes Priority Among Political Elite, Terms “Essential” and “Frontline” Worker Fall Out of Favor With NYT
Unlike previous surges, the paper of record rarely refers to those most at risk as “essential” or “frontline” anymore.
It seems our “essential workers” are no longer that essential. A search of mentions of the labels “essential worker” and “frontline worker” in the New York Times reveals that these terms are rarely used anymore by the paper of record to describe those doing the difficult, thankless jobs necessary to keep our society running.
During previous surges, uses of the terms increased roughly proportionate with hospitalizations. This makes sense: The more acute the pandemic, the more people were hospitalized, the more the media would focus on the effects on “frontline” or “essential workers.”
But the current Omicron surge, despite having a comparable amount of deaths (in absolute numbers) and heretofore unprecedented hospitalizations compared with previous surges, one sees no such corresponding uptick in usage. In fact, use of the terms has gone down to an all-time low since the pandemic began in March 2020, with only four thus far in January, on pace for 9, compared to over 100 the last time hospitalizations were this high. The workers once referred to by the Times as “essential” and “frontline”—healthcare workers, nurses, teachers, grocery workers—are no longer afforded this normative label, but are instead now largely referred to by their job titles alone.
The graph below compares the Times’ usage of “essential workers” and “frontline workers” with the seven-day average of Covid hospitalizations (per 1,000) at mid month.* One can view the inputs here. (For the purpose of this article, hospitalizations are being used a proxy for how acute the pandemic is because cases don’t necessarily translate into health crises impacting frontline workers.)
The search did not include a contextual analysis—these are raw mentions. But it’s clear usage of the terms is down significantly (in absolute numbers, and relative to the severity of the pandemic) in both opinion and reported publishing. This could be for two reasons: Either the Times’ editorial focus has shifted away from the plight of frontline workers, or its editors have made a choice to use the label less when reporting on them. Either way, the positive social status conferred from labels like “essential” and “frontline”—conveying a sense of heroism and war-like positioning—is no longer prominent in New York Times reportage.
It’s a rough metric, and obviously the Times is only one publication, but it is the most influential in the English-speaking world. The rise of hospitalizations and the falling off of mawkish “hero” rhetoric for underpaid labor tracks broadly with a media and political environment that has pivoted from praising—albeit with empty words—those doing “essential” work to one that is currently occupied with disciplining frontline workers unable or unwilling to simply Let Things Go Back To Normal without demanding safety standards or pay increases.
Virtually all major Democrats—mayors, governors, the White House—joined in with Republicans this week demagoguing the demands of teachers’ unions for better safety standards around Covid, unfairly caricaturing them as pro-remote-learning, rather than proponents of temporary tools to mitigate risks and safety protocols elected officials have failed to implement for over a year. For Democratic leaders, more social safety spending is off the table: no eviction moratoriums, no additional hazard pay, no guaranteed sick leave, no expanded unemployment insurance. It’s Back to Normal™ regardless of what the virus does.
Reportedly, at the “urging” of corporate America, the Biden White House reduced isolation times for a positive test from 10 to five days. “The vaccines changed everything” they say. This is true—the virus is far less deadly proportionate to cases, thanks largely to vaccinations. But if cases are four times what they were, from a frontline worker perspective—managing filled up ICUs and educators and students out with sickness—this isn’t very reassuring, or relevant to the key fact that the pandemic isn’t over, no matter how much we wish it away. Vaccines were widely available during the last Delta surge, but we still had a general usage of “essential” framing. What changed, more than anything, was the political winds: We are told now we will simply have to “learn to live with a virus,” a top-down policy choice that doesn’t fundamentally alter the underlying conditions for frontline workers.
But, evidenced by the sickouts, strikes, walkouts, and an endemic inability to find people to do these jobs, the labels “frontline” and “essential” are still very much relevant. Phasing out these labels is a necessary, if subtle, rhetorical demotion as leaders in both parties align with capital to keep wages down, weaken unsanctioned union activity, and lower expectations for the essential workers who, just a few short months ago, we were told were heroes holding our country together.