In June, as COVID infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths in New York hit new lows and vaccination rates rose above 70%, what had appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel blossomed into a sunny summer day. Nearly all remaining restrictions on businesses and social gatherings were eliminated, and sights we hadn’t seen since early last year––crowded restaurants, full bars, and sold-out full-capacity concerts and sporting events at arenas––once again became commonplace in New York.

As the pandemic hopefully continues to recede, the debt and gratitude we owe to our essential, frontline workers should not. These workers – among them, thousands of RWDSU heroes––stepped up to provide essential services for all of us when we were locked down during the worst public health crisis in our country in a century. These working men and women were thrust into a battle they did not choose, but it’s a responsibility they courageously accepted. These essential workers in food processing, health care, pharmacies, supermarkets and retail stores and more were there for us throughout this crisis––often at great personal cost to themselves and their families.

For a brief while, as the pandemic raged, our society and employers recognized the sacrifices essential workers were making. An emphasis was placed on making workplaces safer, with proper PPE provided, and workplaces being kept clean and sanitized to an unprecedented degree. And many employers agreed to “hero pay” for their workers; additional hourly pay that recognized workers’ contributions.

As infection rates continue to drop and vaccination rates continue to rise, it’s important to not lose sight of how important these essential workers are to our economy, our society, and our families. The way we view these workers needs to permanently change for the better, and so does their treatment. Essential workers deserve the higher pay and appreciation many of them received last year, and they deserve greater emphasis on the health and safety of their workplaces.

At the RWDSU, we’ve always recognized the importance of these workers, and fought for greater pay and benefits and safer workplaces to protect them. During the pandemic, we’ve been a leading voice for hero pay as well as proper protection for workers so that they can do their jobs safely and go home to their loved ones. In our latest contracts for retail workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s in New York, covering thousands of working men and women, language was included not only to protect workers and consumers from COVID-19, but also any future pandemics we may have to fight through. The lessons we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will not be forgotten.

It’s no exaggeration to say that RWDSU members––and all essential workers––earned the title of “heroes” during the COVID-19 pandemic. We owe it to all of them to continue to fight for safer workplaces, better pay, and better benefits for the essential work they do not only during times of crisis, but every single day.

Stuart Appelbaum is president, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Twitter: @sappelbaum; www.rwdsu.info