Staff Editorial: Let the snow day remind you to appreciate essential workers

This past Wednesday, Feb. 2, many of us went to sleep to the sound of blowers and shovels scraping away snow as it fell. Over the next few days, Washington University landscape workers continued to diligently clear paths and salt icy streets until nightfall in order for the community to walk around campus safely. Though many professors held classes on Zoom, urging students to not risk driving on the roads, dining workers braved the weather to come to work. 

Yet on campus, complaints abounded as some dining hall stations and cafes were closed and lines lengthened for anything still open. Some students even became brusque with the workers who showed up. 

As we wait with bated breath for the pandemic to narrow to a more-manageable endemic level, the term “essential worker” has been circulating in our cultural lexicon for nearly two years, meaning basically “the people that we rely on to make our country function as it should.” This includes workers in transportation, food, sanitation and healthcare. 

In 2020, these people were celebrated, seen as heroes risking their health and safety in order to maintain a sense of normalcy for the rest of the population. Since then, however, it seems as if we have forgotten this gratitude and instead are focused merely on our own discomfort. 

Though this should not have to be said, it continues to prove necessary to spell out: Regardless of your own perceived importance, speak to those who serve and help you like the people they are. As WashU students, we often balance being a part of the St. Louis community and being guests in the St. Louis community, and that conversation requires us to recognize that staff are year-round citizens of the city and don’t only exist within our interactions with them. 

If we can’t even make it across campus to class without remarks about ice on paths and biting winds, why do we complain when workers can’t make the trek across the city to BD? In 2021, the University was ranked a top employer by Forbes, partially based on “their ability to remain flexible and keep employees safe.” If workers didn’t come to campus while inches of snow fell over St. Louis, ideally that means that the University is living up to this ranking by allowing their workers to assess risk and choose safety. 

Just as it is our responsibility as students to appreciate, thank and respect campus workers, it is also the University’s responsibility to set a standard for the treatment of workers both on our campus and around it. As the second-largest employer in St. Louis, WashU has the power to impact the quality of life of thousands of workers, as well as denote a benchmark of employee treatment to other employers.

The responsibility of being a major employer of a city also includes dictating minimum wage for those employees, which we encourage the University to continue to consider. In 2019, when the University committed to increase the minimum wage to $15 for 1,200 University employees, then-Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration Henry Webber said that “We as a community should be doing somewhat more to improve the economic security of the lowest-paid members of the University community.” This was true then and is certainly no less true now, two years into a pandemic that has left many of us more economically uncertain than ever. As “hero” pay raises disappear nationwide and inflation continues to rise, it is more important than ever to monitor the local economy, compensate staff accordingly and continue to provide support and flexibility to WashU employees. 

Appreciation of the WashU staff should come from all sides, especially as they continue to be the essential workers on our campus and in our community throughout the pandemic and hazardous weather. To the students, remember your privilege and fortune, and express and practice gratitude. To the University, the message is the same, though in this case actions — such as pay and flexible policy — speak louder than words.

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