Let’s Stop Using the Term “Non-Essential Employees”

This post comes from my left field group of posts, which you can read about here.   If you want to read something soothing about bees, butterflies, and flowers you need to check out my posts on beekeeping.  In this post, I am unleashing my frustration on the phrase “non-essential employees.”

The use of the term didn’t really bother me at the beginning of the pandemic.  In my geographic area the term is frequently used when there is a heavy snowfall or icy roads.  In that context, the phrase refers to employees that are required to keep infrastructure from collapsing.  In my previous job, our facility engineers and the employess that were needed to bring the manufacturing processes to safe stopping points were considered essential personnel.  Their work wasn’t more important in the long term than any other employee.  However, in that moment they were needed to keep us from burning down the plant or losing a million dollars worth of pharmaceutical products that were really needed by sick people.  The use of the phrase “non-essential” on a long term basis is degrading to workers and diminishes the value of work.

Any worker that earns a paycheck is essential to someone.  If the work had no value, the employer wouldn’t have hired the employee in the first place.  Some of the work classified as “non-essential” is becoming more critial as time passes.  Let’s use the example of a massage therapist.  To some people massage therapy may seem to be non-essential.  A relaxing massage is a luxury for the decadent and pampered, right?  What if you have a chronic pain condition and you use massage therapy to control pain because prescription pain medications are causing your liver to fail?  In that context, massage therapy is  essential because it alleviaties human pain and suffering.  Used clothing stores and the work of their employees were classified as non-essential during this pandemic.  For some people, these stores provide the only opportunity parents have to provide adequate clothing for their family.  Closing these stores for a period may be necessary, but the work that these employees do is very essential for a community.

Before I was a beekeeper, I was a corporate executive.  I worked long hours, was addicted to the adrenaline rush my job provided, and was immersed in corporate lingo.  I knew a man who referred to all employees as “heads”.  He didn’t do this directly to an employee’s face.  He reserved that language for management meetings.  How many heads do you need to do a job?  Will we need to cut heads if business goes down?  The language made me bristle everytime I heard it.  Another term I learned and hated is “synergy”.  Anytime an executive uses the word “synergy” that means departments are going to be combined and employees are going to lose their jobs.  I was in a contentious meeting once when I was asked if I could  find more synergies.  I very angrily and unprofessionally snapped back, “The synergies have names.”  I don’t think I was cut out for corporate America, which is why I consumed large quantities of acid reflux medication for over a decade.

Am I being overly sensitive or too politically correct by wanting to eliminate the term non-essential employee?  I don’t think so.  Words shape attitudes and attitudes shape actions.  We need a culture that values everyone’s work and everyone’s contribution to our society.  I am not pushing a political agenda.  I don’t favor any political party.  I think Democrats and Republicans are basically the same.  Each party just uses different words before they bow to corporate interests, maintain the status quo, and squeeze out the average citizen.  Has the quarantine made my cynical?  Perhaps.

We need different words for workers.  Let me propose a few:

  • Short term and long term essential employees – All employees are essential, but some can be off the job a bit longer than others before things start to collapse.
  • Skeleton and muscle employees – The skeleton employees are the grocery workers, the critical healthcare workers, etc.  The muscle employees are the ones that are needed to keep everything besides critical infrastructure going strong like the hairstylists, restaraunt servers, retail, etc.  Would you prefer to be called non-essential or a muscle employee?  I think a muscle employee would be cool.  I can already think of T-shirts that could be designed.
  • Mashed potatoes and gravy employees – They complement each other, and nobody wants to go for very long having mashed potatoes without gravy.
  • For states with phased re-openings, group the employees by the Hogwarts houses – This idea is my personal favorite.  All the employees that were working through the quarantine can be Gryffindor.  Those opening in Phase 1 are Slytherin.  Phase 2 is Ravenclaw, and Phase 3 is Hufflepuff.  This terminology values everyone and would make young people more inclined to get engaged with politics and the economy.  Can’t you see all these kids gathering around the nightly address by the governor to see when Ravenclaw will be activated?  Kids would excitedly ask their parents to which houses they belonged.

Bees have learned something that people have not.  Everyone’s contribution matters.  Everyone has a job, and the colony survives only when everyone is fulfilling their respective roles.

Expect more posts on beekeeping in the future.  Today was a special day.  I got my first haircut in months.  My head is much lighter, and I am thinking more clearly.  Stay safe, and know that you will always be essential.




1 thought on “Let’s Stop Using the Term “Non-Essential Employees”

  1. Pat Godbey

    I appreciate your thinking on this. I guess I really don’t like the term either now that you mention it. I was never in to Harry Potter so I don’t necessarily understand those references but nevertheless I get the article. I doubt anyone likes to be thought of as non-essential. We all have our place and we all have our contribution.

    Liked by 1 person


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