More than a year ago, the coronavirus pandemic changed the way we live. For the UChicago community, this has meant a transition to distance learning, the loss of common spaces, and the disruption of many long-standing College traditions. The pandemic has also brought us a new vocabulary. Words like “pod,” “social distancing,” and “superspreader” have entered everyday conversations. But “essential worker” is a pandemic-era vocabulary word with special weight.
Essential workers have always been essential—to our University community and to every other aspect of our lives. The pandemic has brought near-constant praise for essential workers in medicine, food service, and higher education. But this praise has not corresponded to concrete policy actions. “Thank you, essential workers” banners do not necessarily translate into actual support.
With this special series on campus labor, The Maroon has worked to chronicle the experiences of some of the workers at the University of Chicago, many of whom are juggling the difficulties of the pandemic and the fight for union recognition by the University administration. From skilled trade workers who are ineligible for paid leave if they contract COVID-19 to college lecturers who, due to a lack of adequate preparatory space on campus, have been forced to work in their cars, each group has highlighted concerns with the University's response towards the pandemic.
Whether they are introducing first-years to the Iliad or literally keeping the lights on in campus buildings, the labor of essential workers has always nourished the life of the mind. The importance of their labor has only grown more apparent over the past 13 months. As May Day approaches, we want to highlight the stories of the workers who have kept UChicago running during the pandemic.