essential worker

My daughter works as a cashier at a food market. Back in March, shortly before Florida’s “safer-at-home order,” her boss handed her a letter identifying her as an essential worker.

“Keep it to show your grandkids,” I told her.

She’s 21. Cue the eye roll. Yet I could tell the thought tickled her. Essential worker. People have called her a lot of things but never that.

My daughter has struggled in school. All the well-meant accommodations and offers of extra help only made her feel worse about herself. It didn’t help that she belongs to a nerdy family, with a college instructor for a mother and an academic superstar for a younger brother. Later, she told me about some of her evasive maneuvers in high school, hanging out in a doctor’s waiting room across the street from campus while skipping classes. Days before her graduation, I wasn’t sure if she’d earned enough credits and crossed enough T’s to actually collect the diploma.

What a celebration when she joined the class of 2017!  Then what?

Her junior year she had started working part time at a fast-food joint because I couldn’t meet all her material expectations—ripped jeans, takeout, acrylic nails. After her manager got arrested for embezzling, I suggested the market.

As my daughter makes very clear to everyone around her, cashiering is a J-O-B, not a career. She just hasn’t figured out her path yet.

No rush, I said, but here’s the deal: 1) get more education or 2) pay some rent.

She started community college classes. She wants to be a college student, like her high-achieving friends. Like her brother. Trouble is, she still hates school.

And she hates her job. Mostly. She still enjoys the paycheck.

She’s honest, hard-working, a bit mischievous but a leader. Yet she turned down a promotion to assistant manager. J-O-B, remember?

How do you communicate to a child your faith in her boundless potential and your permission to fulfill it any way that makes her happy? I’ve told my daughter that college is an option, not an expectation, that plenty of people without bachelor’s degrees have financially rewarding and emotionally satisfying careers. She doesn’t believe me. Since kindergarten, her teachers and I—the whole culture really—have been talking up the wonders of higher education.

“It makes your life interesting,” I say. Since you’re going to rattle around in your head all your life, you should at least furnish it well, to paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda. But I’ve come to respect that my daughter appoints her inner rooms in other, non-bookish ways.

Her teachers made the economic argument. According to the Social Security Administration, women with college degrees outearn their peers with high-school diplomas by $630,000 over a lifetime. Although fuzzy on the calculations, my daughter finds this differential compelling.

But she’s still cashiering. Ever-anxious, she dislikes change.

“What about a job in hospitality?” I’ve suggested. Articulate, assertive, gregarious, with finely tuned human radar, she has soft skills in spades.

She was considering that move not very seriously when the novel coronavirus infiltrated.

All of a sudden, she was working extra hours while friends were losing their bartending and server jobs. Money!

People were thanking her for performing an essential service. Respect!

But also, every day, scores of hyperventilating strangers were handing her cash and credit cards. Danger!

So, she upped her self-care. Forget my unambitious meals: She started to use her employee discount to buy salmon, peppers, and endless avocados.

My little vector, I tease her. But she’s careful. She wore gloves long before her coworkers did, before the market put up plexiglass shields near the registers. Within hours, her gloves turn black from handling cash.

“You’re so lucky to have a job,” people often tell her. Which is true. But my daughter also confronts pandemic panic for 4 or 8 or 10 hours a shift. She knows most of the PLU codes by heart and moves people through her line fast—fastest in the store—to minimize everyone’s exposure.

Except when customers ask, “Can you scan my food without touching it?” My daughter answered by trying to pick up a tomato with her elbows.

What stuns her, and me, is the selfishness fear breeds. In March one customer offered the manager $100 for the canister of disinfectant wipes. Another stole it. Now cashiers take turns sanitizing carts.

Another customer leaned over the sneeze guard and huffed at my daughter, “See—what good is this going to do?”

People regularly rail at her about the escalating cost of eggs and steak and strawberries, as if cashiers priced the produce. One afternoon my daughter pulled down her gaiter for a moment. A woman jabbed her finger toward the plexiglass: “She’s the reason I’m going to die!”

Actually, it might be the other way around. At least 100 grocery workers have died of Covid-19, according to the Washington Post. But with no reporting requirements, it’s hard to keep track.

My daughter dried a few tears and kept the checkout line moving.

She vented later. If that woman is so worried, why doesn’t she use drive-through? Or get her groceries delivered? “I didn’t sign up for this,” my daughter wails.

Her manager has praised her for stepping up. “And?” my daughter asked. In her experience, critiques always follow compliments. “What am I doing wrong?” Her manager couldn’t think of a thing.

Sometimes my daughter lords her busyness over her nonessential brother and me, learning and teaching online, safe and bored at home. But she is rightly proud.

As Florida relaxes its sheltering-in-place guidelines, the line between essential and nonessential businesses is blurring. Once infections abate, my daughter will return to being “just” a cashier.

I hope she will find her métier in our clobbered economy. But shouldn’t any job done well convey dignity? My daughter is so essential to this family. Whatever her career, I wish she could carry that label into every workplace. 

Sylvia Whitman is a writer for children and adults — books and articles for children, articles for adults. She teaches professional and creative writing at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Find out more about her and her work at