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SAN DIEGO — This Labor Day, I find myself working through a few thoughts about labor and employment. I’m particularly curious about how these concepts were changed by the damnable year of 2020.

First, there was the plague. COVID-19 devastated the U.S. economy, and — despite Mitt Romney’s infamous insistence that corporations are people too — it was American workers who suffered most of the pain.

In May, nearly 40 million Americans were unemployed. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the figure is closer to 30 million.

But the recovery is fragile, and we’re not out of the woods yet. The travel and hospitality industry — hotels, airlines, restaurants — is still reeling. MGM Resorts is laying off 18,000 workers. United Airlines plans to lay off 16,000 people, while American Airlines has threatened to discharge 19,000 workers.

Those of us who still have a job — or out of necessity, more than one — should be grateful. And those who have a job to go back to, but, until recently, refused to show up because they were collecting more in unemployment benefits, ought to be ashamed.

No doubt, unemployment has become much less attractive with the expiration of the $600 per week boost in benefits that Congress provided in the Spring as part of its coronavirus relief package. That will bring people back to work; hopefully, their old employer didn’t go out of business and close up.

According to Homebase — a provider of scheduling software for small businesses — more than 20% of small businesses that closed during the pandemic remain shuttered.

We won’t know the extent of the damage for a long time. A job isn’t just about money. It’s about being useful and productive. It’s about putting your time to good use and contributing to society. It’s about the satisfaction that comes from using your natural talents to provide a service that others value. And, as if that weren’t enough, a job is also about identity. Talk to a nurse, teacher or police officer. Often, what you do really does define who you are.

Also, the last six months should have taught Americans quite a bit about the value of all kinds of work.

Remember when politicians used to talk about finding ways to loosen immigration laws to make it easier to admit “high-skilled” laborers? By that, they likely meant highly educated and well-trained workers, the sort who might be destined for the tech industry.

But COVID-19 tossed those assumptions out the window. The new definition of “skilled” should be when one is able to do a job that no one else will do. From house painters to avocado pickers to those who wash windows on skyscrapers, the U.S. workforce is full of people who perform tasks that many of us can’t do, won’t do, or have no desire to do. That’s their skill, and we should value it.

What good does it do to declare jobs like waiting tables or cleaning offices “essential” work while we continue to underpay, and thus undervalue, those who perform those jobs? Essential should mean well-compensated.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I should tell my teenage kids about what they’re seeing happen before their eyes. I want them to know what my parents taught me — that all honest work has value, and blue-collar workers should be respected as much as white-collar workers. But I also want to inspire them to study hard, go to college, pay their dues, and aim for what previous generation used to call “good jobs.”

In my parent’s day, a good job was simply one that let you escape field work and put you in an office with air conditioning. From there, if you could get a raise or promotion now and then, that was just gravy.

For me, it’s a job that lets you follow your passion and use your gifts to make people think the kinds of thoughts that make them uncomfortable. It’s work that makes a difference, and leaves the world better than you found it.

Who knows what my kids will, one day, consider a good job. That’ll be for them to define. But I hope it goes beyond acquiring money and fame. Neither one lasts for very long. I hope they aspire to something bigger.

On the subject of jobs, labor, and employment, there seems to be a lot more to think about. And Labor Day is the right time to sort it out.

Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist. His email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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