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.

Friday, April 17, 2020

After-Coronavirus Ideas: Some Bad, but Mostly Good

This week we’ve had a flurry of views on the steps we as a nation – and as states and groupings of states – should take after the pandemic, which, with a noteworthy lack of terrible news this week, is probably leveling off.  Some called themselves “plans,” but they weren’t really, though all had worthwhile points. 

First was “Joe Biden:  My Plan to Safely Reopen America,” in the April 12th New York Times.  Our Democratic contender, as of yesterday evening listed as a 6 to 5 election underdog against Donald Trump in, put forth more of a campaign statement than a course of action.  He had the right main idea, though, that “the plan has to start with responding effectively to the immediate medical crisis and ultimately lead to the widespread availability and administration of a vaccine,” something consistently mentioned in these articles but not enough in previous weeks.  Per Biden, “social distancing has to continue” (yes), and as “things will not go back to “normal” right away” (something also previously missing), “we should expect activity to resume gradually, with sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theaters.”  While “restaurants may need new layouts” and “offices and factories will need to space out workers,” those changes need not be permanent.  A proposal in Robert Epstein’s responding letter that “self-testing… would allow the uninfected Americans… to return to work and school immediately” is unworkable as it would depend on almost every exception to know and be honest about their status.

In the same publication the next day, Jim Tankersley told us that “Economic Pain Will Persist Long After Lockdowns End.”  He mentioned the absolute need for a vaccine, that government edicts will not restart the economy all by themselves as “unemployment claims rose and restaurant reservations vanished even before the lockdown orders hit,” and the same thing will happen again with individual judgments dictating caution, as, per U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Suzanne Clark, “you can’t just turn the light switch on and have everyone go back to work.” 

Also on April 13th, we learned that “(Dr. Anthony) Fauci says ‘rolling reentry’ of US economy possible in May” (Fox Business).  Past the headline, the article more accurately clarified that as “parts of the U.S. could reopen and get back to business as early as next month.”  Vague, but if the number of new cases is not only consistently declining but low in some places, those could move forward.  Yet all should understand that Wyoming opening restaurants does not mean New Yorkers should plan on attending Yankees games.

The next day we went back to other motives with Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times “Post-Pandemic, Here’s How America Rises Again.”  The columnist’s affection for non-oil energy ran through this piece, but he also emphasized the need for the entire country to have high-speed Internet, something overdue if not strictly pertinent to the recovery.  His third idea of “deployment across America of more affordable tools of invention, design and manufacturing” was, even when given a page later, unclear and of little value.  No plan here either.

Also in the Times on the 14th, Julie Bosman’s “U.S. Governors, at Center of Virus Response, Weigh What It Will Take to Reopen States” quoted those from Oregon, Illinois, Mississippi, Massachusetts, California, New York and more with their insights, best from California’s Gavin Newsom for saying “normal it will not be, at least until we have herd immunity and a vaccine.”  Some states and groupings of them are working out what might be called pre-plans, such as six from Delaware to Massachusetts “by an improvised think-tank-like team with three representatives… from each state.”  Overall, the governors seemed sober, patient, and realistic, and a “Frequently Asked Question” after the piece correctly said that “when will this end?” was “a difficult question” that could not now be answered.

A third article in the same place that day had Gail Collins and Bret Stephens kicking around “We’re Not Going Back to Normal, but What Can We Go Back To?.”  Nothing much new here, but yet again we see the perception, from Stephens, that “there won’t be any going back to normal until we have a vaccine or effective medication.”  He also called for “wide-scale antibody testing,” for the benefit of the testees, and quarantining those with the infection.  Basic, but worthwhile.  That was much the same idea of the concurrent USA Today “2 coronavirus tests hold the key to reopening America from pandemic lockdown,” namely the do-you-have-it ones long available but of limited value as those testing negative can become positive later on, and the antibody assessment, “a version of which has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.” 

The most detailed set of information on how to recover was in “Coronavirus recovery:  Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt weighs in on rebuilding economy” (Fox Business, April 15th).  This one-time major corporate leader gave us a mixed bag, getting fooled by mass unemployment’s chance to “be avoided through job retraining and reskilling” and by “jobs being created by virtue of the digital platforms” being a significant factor, but also named “a broadly available vaccine and herd immunity” as preconditions for normalcy, and that reopening schools, “because we don’t fully understand the transmission path with kids and their parents and especially their grandparents,” would be especially problematic.  Schmidt also recommended that governors seek expertise from universities as well as at corporations. 

Finally, on the same date’s Fox News, we saw Dom Calicchio’s “Social distancing may be needed, on and off, until 2022:  Harvard study.”  I think the vaccine, when distributed, would put an end to that, but this piece ends with something else underemphasized.  Per epidemiologist Micharl Osterholm, “people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks.  This is about the next two years.”  That, important for our mental health as well as our logistics, is where I end this week.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Five Facets of Coronavirus and Employment: Five Views

Over the past week-plus we have seen innumerable articles on our public health crisis.  Most is perishable, if not outright obsolete by the time it hits electronic print.  Yet on the larger issues, where much less is being written, what is coming out will be valid much longer.

Peoples’ luck is making huge differences in their current situations, and needing a professional job, even one with no connection to the industries on hold, is of the bad variety.  In’s April 5th “Can You Even Job Search Right Now?,” Alison Green concluded that, except for positions in sudden high demand, no, you really can’t.  Per Green, “there’s never been a more depressing time to be a work advice columnist.”  She pointed out that those “who accepted job offers – and quit their current jobs – only to then find out that the new job has been put on hold” have been damaged even more than people previously unemployed, and noted that emerging adults lucky enough to get good work soon after graduation are often now in danger of losing it, and fear that if they “have to move home again” they will “be stuck there forever.”  Except for those in the likes of health care, hiring managers and organizations will seldom be willing to give up their hands full of cards to streamline hiring practices, and clearly, in most places, typical interview processes cannot now take place.  So, perhaps, here, it’s sort of an indefinite late December.

Amazon, in my mind sort of fresh off their New York City debacle, has drawn controversy for their approach to coronavirus worker safety.  While their sales overall, beyond obvious things such as groceries, must be way up, per Karen Weise and Kate Conger’s  April 5th New York Times “Gaps in Amazon’s Response as Virus Spreads to More than 50 Warehouses,” the company has not implemented a unified way of protecting their order-fillers, and as a result has seen employee unrest, unauthorized departures, and poor acceptance of voluntary overtime.  Amazon has since “raised wages and added quarantine leave, and… is offering overtime at double pay.”  Whether those things will be enough to prevent widespread national customer resentment is unknown.

Next, we get into a concern which should surprise no one – the politicization of coronavirus responses.  It was at its most depressing in McCay Coppins’s “The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun,” published March 30th in The Atlantic.  Here we had alleged or self-identified Republicans in suburban Dallas and Atlanta, places with high populations and thus real numbers of infections but away from both the largest virus hot spots and large numbers of tourists, who broke not only general rules such as six-foot distancing but, for example at a golf course, “made a show of shaking hands,” “complained loudly about the “stupid hoax” being propagated by virus alarmists,” and, against new course policy, “piled defiantly into golf carts, shoulder to shoulder.”  I am glad I have heard nothing about such behavior in my county, despite its 57% 2016 Trump majority, and hope such attitudes are not widespread. 

Despite some impatient and thoughtless presidential wishes for way-premature normalization, Jim Tankersley wrote in the April 6th New York Times that “U.S. Is Nowhere Close to Reopening the Economy, Experts Say.”  He tried to stumble out of the gate by starting with “How long can we keep this up?,” when clearly, per national infectious disease advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, “the virus makes the timeline,” but then surveyed various prominent economists, who together made the main point that now, as it is dependent on epidemiological information not yet available, we can’t possibly know.  One or two interviewees correctly said that we will not have a sudden, total restart, with one saying “it’s important not to lift too early” and another that “we should certainly be prepared for a meaningful level of deliberate suppression of economic activity for the rest of the year.”  It will be best, in the long run, for people to be pessimistic about when we will get back to normal – consider whether if, at a restaurant, when it takes 40 minutes to be seated, you would rather have been told 20 minutes or an hour – and, for now, reject any timelines. 

During my lifetime, events from the Cuban Missile Crisis to 9/11 have failed to imprint permanent social effects.  Urmimala Biswas, writing for Zacks in the April 8th Yahoo Finance, says this time will be different, as “Coronavirus to Permanently Change Way of Life, Here are 4 Trends (Revised).”  His piece, geared toward investors, suggests some possibilities for large upsides, particularly telemedicine, virtual education, video communication, and e-commerce.  I am skeptical about the first three, since although people have been required to use them recently, they may still consider them inferior goods.  It’s different with ordering online, since those just discovering it may like the convenience, though businesses will find out once again that the amount they must charge for shipping bulky items such as groceries will be too high for many people.  The virus will certainly permanently help some businesses and break others, but I doubt entire industries will do as well as Biswas suggests. 

Agree or disagree, but, in any event, keep safe. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Just the Beginning: March Jobs Data Reflects the First Coronavirus Losses, with AJSN Latent Demand Up 1,435,000 to 17.3 Million

This morning’s jobs statistics are almost worthless.

The reason is that it came from surveys around the middle of March, when the crisis was only starting to show in employment, and the overwhelming majority jobless now were still working.  Still, it gives us a taste of what we’re going to see.

We lost 701,000 net nonfarm positions, at the bottom of an 800,000-job-wide range reflecting uncertainty about how many people had lost them at survey time.  Adjusted unemployment rose 0.9% to 4.4%, with unadjusted up 0.7% to 4.5%.  The unemployed count rose 1.3 million to 7.1 million, with the number of those out for 27 weeks or longer – not affected yet by the virus – up 100,000 to match January’s 1.2 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages for those still working gained 10 cents per hour, above inflation, to $28.62.  The data showed 1.5 million more working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting but not having full-time propositions, and is now 5.8 million. 
The most dramatic changes, historically speaking, were in the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or officially jobless.  The labor force participation rate fell 0.7%, and is now at a 42-year bottom, equaling December 1977’s 62.7%.  The employment-population ratio, off 1.1% to 60.0%, is at its lowest since February 2017’s 59.9%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press product showing in one figure how many new positions could be quickly filled if they were understood to be easy to get, jumped 1.4 million as follows:

That only just over one million of this increase came from official unemployment showed that other statuses have gained people as well.  The count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more added about 400,000.  Those claiming no interest in working were up almost 1.6 million.  However, others did not – for example, the number of people in the armed forces, institutions, and with unknown statuses lost a little, implying that, at least as of the middle of last month, there had been no rush to go off the grid.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has given up its almost monthly improvement and is now up 1.2 million.  Two thirds of that is from higher official unemployment, with most of the rest from a larger count of those wanting work but not searching for it for the past year. 

We’ll see what happens when the new employment data comes out May 8th.  We could easily be down tens of millions of jobs, with unemployment way into double figures.  The turtle took a large step backwards this time, but may need to be lifted and carried next.