The Accepted Tier of Second-class

Calling second-class workers "essential" doesn't erase the differences

The Accepted Tier of Second-class

A recent interview with Gene Sperling, author of the recent book, “Economic Dignity,” and a former White House economic advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, threw me back a little when he described what constitutes a “second-class worker.”

I realized not only have I often failed to register these people in my life as such, but that I’ve also been one.

Agra - Second Class train | bernicelee | Flickr

While much of the interview is superb, it was Sperling’s definition of the integrated second-class worker that resonated with me. It has stuck in my mind (and the pit of my stomach).

Integrated second-class workers exist in our midst, within our companies and organizations, and may even be considered colleagues. Yet, they don’t have the same benefit packages regular employees receive; they can’t participate in “bring your daughter to work” days, for example; they aren’t subject to the organization’s HR policies; and, they may or may not have paid vacation.

These employees are in universities and workplaces all around us. They’re the janitorial staff you encounter when you work late. They’re the workers serving you food via a contract with Aramark or some other similar provider. They’re the parking garage staff, or the groundskeepers who work on contract. They’re the cashiers you joke with every morning as you get the coffee at the embedded Au Bon Pain or Pret in the basement of your hospital or administration building. They’re the outsourced copyeditors, the overseas conversion teams, the contract computer support people.

They are an economic convenience. In most cases, they’re second-class so the first-class workers can have more financial and economic security.

The way we’ve come to accept second-class status for people we work among and with everyday is a little disconcerting. Most of us believe in fairness and equity, and even celebrate diversity, but we may be inured to the way that second-class economic statuses have sneaked into our workplaces. If we’re not pretending it doesn’t exist, we rationalize it as, “They’re adults, they have what they think is a fair deal, so why is that my problem?” Yet, it’s difficult to reconcile it all when you pause to ponder the implications of saying this from a first-class status, which only exists because there isn’t equity as a groundrule.

The second-class workforce may be even more invisible to you now. They aren’t on Zoom calls. They aren’t pinging you on your email. They aren’t in your social media feeds. You aren’t going to the cafeteria or coffee shop to see them these days. These are the people who don’t get asked to meetings, who don’t have authority in the workplace, and who you don’t follow on social. And your company’s or organization’s policies for pay, hours, and benefits through the Covid-19 pandemic aren’t the ones they’re living with. You probably don’t have any idea what’s happening with them, even if you have known them for years.

But they are “essential,” right?

Maybe these workers would feel more essential if they had the same health benefits, paid vacation days, and opportunities to participate in workplace culture as everyone else. Maybe it’s time to rethink why we have allowed essential workers to be treated as second-class workers for so long.

Maybe the way to ensure equity is to implement equity.

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