Our View: The most essential workers

Our View: The most essential workers
(Photo/Alexandria Fire Department Facebook)

We have learned many things during these past two years of a global pandemic and national unrest. One of those insights is that essential workers really are indispensable, and that our perception of “essential” may have been wrong before.

We always knew nurses and doctors were valuable and should be well compensated because they tend to our health. But did we fully value medical support staff, such as medical technicians and sanitary workers in hospitals, before they spent the last 18 months risking their lives to save ours?

We always knew teachers were important, but until they had to shift on a dime to virtual teaching last year – a method for which they had little to no prior training – we didn’t realize how we had undervalued their contributions.

And what about other interactive jobs such as store clerks, workers in shipping ports and home health aides? It’s a dilemma, and one our country must come to grips with, that so many people who are undocumented residents also hold jobs that were considered “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then there are first responders such as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. Most of us recognize the value of first responders. From a philosophical perspective, public safety is the first function of government, and a main justification for paying taxes.

It has shocked many in Alexandria to learn in recent months that our first responders are among the lowest paid in the entire D.C. metro region. Their union leaders have shed light on not only salary rankings, but also extreme overtime requirements that many first responders face, the result of which appears to be an acute and growing staffing shortage.

Being a nurse or a teacher is a calling. These are at heart selfless jobs, as nurses have to not just administer medicine but also deal with the emotional trauma that caring for sick people entails. Teachers have the task of instilling knowledge in, keeping order among and providing emotional support for other people’s children.

Being a police officer or a firefighter is also a calling. First responders have to be fit and willing to risk their lives on a daily basis to protect others. Their jobs are among the most dangerous in our society – and they deserve to receive compensation commensurate with the risks they take each day.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem with adequately compensating Alexandria’s first responders: They deserve to be paid on a higher scale than that of other city workers.

Paying one group of workers more than another is a dilemma because it brings into conflict the principles of equal outcomes for all with the fact that the work of some people is more valuable in a market economy than that of others.

In fact, it’s more difficult to find people who are willing and able to be police officers or firefighters than it is to find someone to work behind a desk – or at an array of other city jobs for which limited experience is required and many people are qualified. It’s the free market concept of supply and demand: Scarce workers command higher salaries than plentiful ones.

City budget planners are presenting a misleading picture when they say almost $3 million is necessary to give public safety employees even a 1% raise in the fiscal year 2023 budget, because they continue to consider compensation for most city employees as a whole rather than separating out public safety officers.

In fact, a 1% raise for public safety officers alone would be $940,000, while a 10% raise – which is what the police union says is necessary to make Alexandria’s force truly competitive regionally – would be $9,400,000. It would be almost three times that much if all city employees were given the same raise. For more information, see the Times’ page one story, “Council kicks off budget planning.”

Police officers, firefighters and EMTs are simply the most essential and irreplaceable city workers. They need to be paid on a higher scale than less essential workers, and they need to be paid the regional market rate.

That’s the only way to provide the best possible public safety in Alexandria without creating an overwhelming tax burden for residents.