This Thanksgiving, Remember Essential Workers Like Me Who You Celebrated—Then Forgot | Opinion

It is now the second Thanksgiving since the pandemic began. But as horrific as that beginning of the pandemic was for essential workers like me, I find myself feeling almost nostalgic for the first Thanksgiving, when Americans seemed so grateful for us. It felt like a window had opened up in which our value to society was coming into focus. If you ask any essential worker today, they'll tell you that window has long since closed.

My wife and I are both social workers in New York City hospitals. The early days of the first COVID wave were incredibly intense. Anyone who was here remembers the collective panic, the sirens, and the fear. My wife and I were both deemed essential. At the time, our twins were four. And while many people was buckling down for lockdown with their families, we had serious risk assessments to do. I loved my job (and continue to) but was it worth the risk?

Here's something only essential workers experienced: hearing our leaders and public health officials implore the public to stay home because of the grave danger outside, while knowing that you will have to proceed as normal. It was unsettling. And then there was the resentment I felt, seeing calls for pandemic pods and memes about baking bread generated from all those cozily locked up at home. These were understandable responses from people who were looking to keep people safe, or people trying to stay safe during a pandemic. But where did that leave families of essential workers? Without saying so, we were becoming sort of untouchable.

We heard about experiences of health care workers, but something was missing. There was nothing to describe our collective trauma. Going on social media felt like I was peering in on some other culture, some other universe.

This is where the divide started: The experiences of professionals working from home dominated the social discourse and the media conversation. It became "the collective experience," even though it left out a huge chunk of the people who kept society running.

essential workers compensation fund congress
A nurse points to a South San Francisco firefighter holding a 'thank you' signs as she leaves Kaiser Hospital at the end of her shift on May 14, 2020 in South San Francisco, California. A bipartisan bill to help essential workers who get sick, injured or die while serving during the COVID-19 pandemic was introduced in Congress Thursday. Justin Sullivan/Getty

I never made a decision about quitting my job. I just kept going to work, more or less. My wife and I took turns using up vacation days. We were just learning that children were typically low risk, but the idea of exposing our kids felt very unfair.

Regional Enrichment Centers (RECs) were opening for children of essential workers. They turned out to be a godsend for us, but initially just added to the resentment: Most people were not allowing their children inside grocery stores for 10 minutes but I'm supposed to send my kids to school? I had no idea that eventually I'd be so appreciative for an open school!

At the same time, the city was getting gutted. People with means started moving out of the city to escape tight quarantines. With schools closed, parents suffered through Zoom school while attempting to do their own jobs. But if you dared say school was safe, that was deemed an act of violence against teachers.

Of course, essential workers didn't have the choice of keeping kids home or sending kids to private school. In the end we scoured various Facebook groups making lists of commutable towns that had open schools, and traded in a rental in Queens for a rental in Westchester County.

We were lucky. I have a good friend who sent her young son to stay with grandparents in another state, which was very hard on the family and traumatizing for their son. But this was routine among many of my colleagues. While professionals in their 30s were staying safe at home, at-risk grandparents in families with essential workers were taking on childcare roles.

But schooling and working from home weren't the only new divides. Prior to the pandemic, we were considering buying a home. But as those who could escaped the city, the housing market exploded. The country again seemed divided into two: those whose homes were skyrocketing in value and those for whom buying became impossible.

I am considered middle class, but social workers aren't exactly high earners. Moreover, if I was in this position, what were other essential workers doing? People working retail jobs, cashiers, home health aides? According to a health policy brief for The Shift Project, 34.5 percent of workers are essential, and they are disproportionately low-wage earners. These frontline workers tend to have little financial cushion, making home buying particularly difficult.

The gloom among essential workers right now is pervasive. Growing inequality during the pandemic has exacerbated an already-existent divide between lower paid essential workers and professionals working from home, especially in big cities where most workers rent rather than own.

People working from home also got a break from commuting costs and other expenses like work lunches, dry cleaning, even child care. Meanwhile, essential workers never got to save in this way. And it is we who are most affected by inflation and supply chain issues.

So here we are in November 2021 and the divide is worse than ever. On Twitter, professionals attending in person conferences discuss re-integrating into society as if they have been living on Mars. They agonize over rapid testing and wear color coded bracelets to communicate their comfort levels without having to navigate that conversation normally.

It would never occur to my coworkers and I to do rapid tests every morning. We are vaccinated but worked in person even pre-vaccines.

People are resistant to going back to offices, which will have far reaching effects for businesses that rely on the presence of office workers: the cleaners, the lunch spots. There is little acknowledgement of this; people now just feel entitled to this new way of life made possible by people with fewer protections working for service and delivery apps.

One co-worker of mine at the hospital was speaking to a friend who told her she is refusing to go back to the office more than twice a week because she still has unvaccinated kids, completely ignoring the fact that my co-worker also has a young child, is a single mother, and has been working throughout the pandemic. My co-worker was struck by this friend's obliviousness.

I am happy I continued with my job, for myself, for the normalcy that it provided to my family, and for being able to serve the community. I hope more people will return to the office, in particular, social service and mental health professionals in my field, as there is a legitimate mental health crisis occurring and relegating everyone to Zoom therapy isn't the way out.

I also hope that we do get to hear more perspectives from the people who kept society running despite the risk. These stories deserve to be heard.

Ilana Horowitz is a social worker in New York City.