To be an Essential Worker: An Exploration of Rhetoric During COVID-19
COVID-19 has demonstrated the necessity of examining the implications of the deceptively simple term “essential worker.” As an author who spent summer 2020 as an essential worker, I explore one federal and two Minnesota-centered artifacts that focus on creating and distributing definitions: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s guidance, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s Executive “stay-at-home” order, and a debriefing by Walz and other officials to the public. These artifacts and my analysis all attempt to answer the question, what does “essential worker” mean and what are its implications on people’s lives? What arises in these artifacts is a slippage between the “worker” and the “infrastructure,” each defined as essential through their relationship with the other. Cluster criticism (Burke) shows that the term “essential worker” invokes the obligations and responsibilities of a group identity for people defined by it. I argue that in our capitalistic society, value is ultimately placed on labor yet demands workers take on this heavy responsibility and identity. However, the term has caused audiences to recognize this discrepancy in how value is communicated. Because language and the material world influence one another to create a “mangle” of meaning (Hekman), the usage of “essential worker” in discourse has contributed to a cultural re-imagining of labor and the identity one holds as a worker within society.