Friday, April 24, 2020

Redefining Jobs? Creating a New Working Class? Will the Coronavirus Do These Things?

Now that we have settled into the pandemic, we are getting more material on its greater implications.

Since last week, two such articles came out.  The first was “How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class,” by Olga Khazan, dated April 15th in The Atlantic.  Actually it’s about a new working class movement, headed by employees perceiving insufficient virus protection in various ways:  being delayed on promised quarantine-leave pay, told to work despite contact with infected people, being fired for staying away while infected themselves, and even being denied use of masks as they “will disrupt the appearance of normalcy.” 

Clearly we have abuse here, but more often it’s normal low-level-job employment conditions running afoul with changing sensibility and even current social distancing, with one example citing a group of delivery drivers being dispersed by police outside a New York restaurant where they were waiting to pick up orders.  On the other side, I was surprised to see that over 40% of those earning under $24,000 annually could work remotely.  Those who cannot, though, even if not unionized are well positioned to get attention with labor actions. 

Will we have coronavirus-caused labor law changes?  Probably, but per Khazan “it will depend on how severe the death toll turns out to be among service workers.”  For now, beyond their senses of fairness and compassion, companies must be guided by public relations effects, where backlash against, say, a grocery chain with the highest death rates and the most stories of treating its workers as disposable, could be even more lethal.

A week later came Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracey Malcolm, and Susan Cantrell’s Harvard Business Review “How the Coronavirus Crisis is Redefining Jobs.” The title is a bit of an overstatement, as nothing mentioned here is new, but the pandemic will push employers more in certain directions.  Their first bullet point, “make work portable across the organization,” suggested splitting jobs into component tasks distributable to many, allowing reassignment from areas idled or nearly so.  The second, “accelerate automation,” talked to a suspicion I have had for a long time, that companies were not pursuing opportunities there as much as possible savings could indicate.  Contrary to what the authors wrote, it is still a “job-killer,” but is also, more than ever, “a mandatory capability to deal with a crisis.”  Public opinion on automation has probably already reversed, as people want to be assured of getting the likes of food and medical care no matter who, or what, provides them.  (Who now would object to extra toilet paper made without human involvement?).  The third point, “share employees in cross-industry talent exchanges,” lauded such agreements as “supermarket Kroger… temporarily borrowing furloughed employees… from Sysco Corporation, a wholesale food distributor to restaurants that has been hit hard by the coronavirus.”  There should be more of those.

By let’s call it 2023, when the virus is history, how will the world of work show its effects?  There will be benefits, protection, or both, covering similar events, added to employment agreements of in-person service workers.  Whether legally mandated or by employer decision we don’t know, but that won’t matter much.  We won’t see anything like fast-food workers getting $20 an hour, since their potential supply once again will bury demand, yet as with first responders since 9/11 we might have, as Khazan put it, “a return to a 1950s-style view of the working class, in which low-wage jobs conferred a sense of dignity” and higher social status.  As one writer said, the West German political system overvalued farmers, which reasonably reflected memories of the post-war years “when there was nothing to eat.”  Food-related and health care employees may be valued more – and there is nothing wrong with that.  Otherwise, stay tuned – more may change.

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