Front-line worker: A comprehensive definition

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Health-care worker. Image credit: Pathumporn Thongking/UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr

Well into a massive second wave of COVID-19, we continue to thank them. Not with government-mandated paid sick days, better pay, nor improved benefits -- but with tributes at the beginning of NHL games.

But who is a front-line worker, really?

In Alberta, the United Conservative Party (UCP) seemed to know.

When Alberta Health Services announced it would be laying off up to 11,000 of its workers, it made sure to emphasize which health-care workers exactly were at risk of losing their jobs to "restructuring."

No front-line workers would be affected, said Tyler Shandro, the province's health minister, specifically referencing doctors and nurses.

(The caveat was a walkback on the part of the UCP; the initial plan to privatize a portion of Alberta's health-care system had included laying off nurses. Turns out, it's not a great look to lay off the face of health care in the midst of a pandemic).

The Alberta government had apparently decided that those workers it was laying off -- including those in housekeeping, food services, laundry services and lab workers -- were not front-line workers.

This assertion was accepted in much of the media coverage surrounding the layoffs. A subheading in a CBC article, for instance, reiterated: "No front-line staff layoffs during pandemic."

Unions representing the hospital service and lab workers readily disagreed with this characterization.

So who's right?

The definition of a "front-line worker" has morphed since the first nation-wide lockdowns took effect back in March.

A month and a half into the first North-American pandemic lockdowns, Google searches for the term "front-line workers" spiked in Canada, matching worldwide search trends.

At the time, those continuing to show up in person to their jobs were being hailed as heroes by governments, the public, and their employers. Health-care workers, personal support workers, and grocery workers found themselves being described as working on the front lines of a war with an "invisible enemy." 

There were military flyovers and noise-making rituals, all in recognition of workers who were putting their own safety at risk to provide essential care, goods, and services.

Who exactly are we celebrating? That's what I imagine most people were wondering when they Googled the term.

Which front line, exactly?

The definition of front-line worker is two-fold, at least in the context of this pandemic.

Paul Gray is a labour professor at Brock University. His definition of front-line worker is any worker who directly interacts with customers, clients, or the general public. These workers would be at the end of a given production chain -- like grocery retail workers -- or could be service providers, like doctors, nurses, or teachers.

But this definition doesn't exactly match the popular characterization of workers as being on the front lines, as in, being in close proximity to danger.

War metaphors have pervaded government and media language around the pandemic, as University of Ottawa professor Costanza Musu pointed out in an article for The Conversation

While war-time imagery in times of crisis can be dangerous, writes Musu (she suggests it can amp up nationalism and enable authoritarian power grabs), it is popular because it tells a compelling story: the virus has become the enemy, though an invisible one (perhaps more accurately, a microscopic one).

There is a strategy (flattening the curve but also saving the economy), and there are traitors and deserters, which Musu compares to those who break or ignore health and safety protocols.

There are also "front-line warriors," which Musu identifies as health-care personnel, but can also be understood to be any worker who is placing themselves on the "front line" of the pandemic; meaning, risking their own safety and facing danger to provide essential care, products, and services.

That is where the two definitions overlap. In this pandemic, the danger does lie among the public. The front-line workers in the traditional sense are also those who are on the front lines of danger, particularly in retail work, where angry customers have been documented spitting or coughing on workers.

Indeed, one education worker in Toronto died after contracting COVID-19. As early as May, the National Post reported that at least 500 food-retail and pharmacy workers had contracted the virus and several had already died.

Health-care workers are bearing the brunt of the danger, as a July report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information asserted. At that time, 12 health-care workers had died and nearly 22,000 of them had contracted COVID-19.

Beyond essential

In that initial March lockdown, jobs that had once seemed menial were suddenly understood to be essential. Grocery store workers, for instance, noticed their work was being valued by the public in a way it hadn't been before. And, their employers appeared to value them more too, with most retailers offering workers a temporary $2-per-hour pay bump. (In mid-June, the pay raises for grocery workers -- deemed "heroes" by the prime minister himself -- were rescinded, suspiciously all on the same day.)

Essential workers were the ones putting themselves on the front lines: risking their health and safety so that we could feed our families, or occupy ourselves with bread baking. There is certainly overlap and the two terms are often used interchangeably. And, there's sufficient debate around who qualifies as an essential worker and who does not.

With each additional lockdown, restriction, or phase, different groups of businesses have been classified as "essential" in different jurisdictions. Much lobbying is involved. The qualifiers for "essential" are murky shades of grey, but who is essential and who is not has a black-and-white outcome: you're either open or you're closed.

The label of "front-line worker" has the effect of expanding the things we associate with essential work beyond government definitions of who is essential, such as the risk to workers' own health and safety and the extra work they must put in to keep the public safe.

Towards the end of last summer, when the nightly clapping and horn honking began to die down, and governments started undertaking re-opening plans, essential workers once again became just workers.

But, as lockdown restrictions lifted and certain groups of non-essential workers returned to in-person work, they too found themselves cast as front-line workers in the media.

"Teachers are front-line workers and we need to protect them," asserted the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation -- the quote featured in part in a November CTV headline.

Unions continue to push the front-line label as much as they can, and it's not hard to see why: the positive reframing of workers as front-line heroes created a resoundingly positive perception of workers in the eyes of the public. This was a moment with momentum for workers previously under-appreciated, if they could harness it properly.

High stakes on the front lines

Whichever definition you are using, there is no denying that front-line work is currently dangerous. It's why front-line workers are being viewed through a sympathetic lens. It's why laying off 11,000 front-line workers while they literally put their lives at risk for the public good would be... a very bad look for Alberta.

Even setting the danger of the pandemic aside, many of those slated to be laid off by Alberta Health Services would still fall into Gray's definition of front-line worker.

Food service workers, for instance, are not only preparing food in the kitchen, but are also directly providing food to the hospital's public.

While lab work may not require workers to interact with the public, it does require them to regularly handle the public's bodily samples, including tests for COVID-19.

"They said, lab [workers] are not front-line workers, yet right now, one of the screening questions [for] COVID-19 is, 'do you work in a laboratory?' I think that makes you a front-line worker," said Trudy Thomson, vice-president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

By labelling some health-care workers like nurses and doctors as front-line workers but not others, Thomson thinks the Alberta government is trying to divide the health-care workforce.

Gray said the Alberta government's definition of "front line" is a way for it to "try to overcome the very difficult task of explaining to the public why you are going to engage in such a massive restructuring of health-care provision in the midst of a pandemic."

Really, it's about not being gutted in the court of public opinion for engaging in mass layoffs of workers that mere months ago, we were banging on pots and pans for.

It also serves to emphasize the work that we, collectively, see as important -- as worthy. In turn, it emphasizes who we see as worthy of pay, benefits, and our respect.

As the country comes down from the sense of unity and solidarity that the pandemic initially imbued, it's important to watch the speed at which some workers are cast aside as unimportant.

The corporations who exploit their labour would have you quickly forget: workers are the ones getting us through this.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020-2021. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image credit: Pathumporn Thongking/UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr

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