Observing Labor Day through COVID-19 lens

Memorial Day to Labor Day. That’s how we typically celebrate the beginning and end of summer, enjoying its arrival with weekend getaways or barbecues, then mourning its departure with the same.

Like Memorial Day, Labor Day originally was intended to do more than mark the beginning or end of the season.

Labor Day dates back to the late 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution was at its height. Average Americans worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week in order to earn a living, according to history.com.

Working conditions were unsafe and workers had limited access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. Despite laws to the contrary in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 worked in mills, factories and mines, earning a fraction of what adult workers were paid.

In 1882, some 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

Labor unions continued to grow more prominent and more vocal, calling attention to the deplorable conditions through strikes and rallies. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the Pullman Strike in 1894 are among the most well-known — and the most violent.

At about the same time, hoping to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894.

One hundred and thirty-six years later, many once again find themselves in less than optimal working conditions. Some are in businesses where masks are not diligently enforced, either for staff or customers entering the establishment. Others — especially those working in the hospitality industry — might be concerned about the sheer number of people they encounter each day. We hope the new restrictions requiring diners to wear masks while interacting with their server will help ease some of those concerns.

For millions across the country, the biggest problem with work is the lack thereof. Unemployment in July in Illinois was 11.3 percent, among the highest rates in the country. (Massachusetts at 16.1 percent tops the list.)

More Illinoisans are back to work now than they were in April, when unemployment peaked at 17.2 percent. It’s hard to believe just two months earlier, before the pandemic, the rate was at an all time low of 3.4 percent.

We have a new appreciation for “essential” workers — the folks who have risked infection to take care of the sick and keep us safe. They’ve made sure we could turn the lights on, buy groceries and take the train to work.

And when the state began to re-open, they were behind the cash register at our favorite store and ready to take our order at our favorite restaurant. With the start of the school year, they are back at work teaching our children, either online, in person or in some combination of the two.

This Labor Day, let us celebrate all the individuals who haven’t had the luxury of working from home since March. And let’s pray for those who haven’t been able to work at all.