Rethinking Work In A Pandemic

August 14, 2021

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s interesting to read of the economic growth during the first seven months of the Biden Administration. Unemployment is hovering around 5.5%, but paradoxically, stories of unfilled jobs and desperate employers seem to dominate the news cycle.

It’s actually a happy dilemma – supply chain disruptions notwithstanding – demand for labor and full employment are always goals of government; but after the pandemic, conventional economic “rules” and how we think about them have been altered, with reasons discussed below. How to respond, however, may just take some good old laws of economics.

The specter of catching a debilitating, even fatal disease had a chilling effect on the work force, not to mention the overall economy, subjected to closures and shutdowns in an effort to stop the spread of Covid. Like a chessboard that’s been bumped by a knee, all the pieces were scattershot – and we’re still trying to figure where they once were.

We learned how to work from home.

We learned how to communicate remotely (as awkward as it occasionally is).

After the introduction of a vaccine, the economy rebounded strongly. Those who were pent up, holed up and isolated found mobility and a sense of freedom and spending resumed once again. However, some folks, weary of Covid, the disruption it caused, and now it’s re-emergence among the unvaccinated, which threatens the economy once again, has garnered a re-calibration in one’s relationship with work. And sometimes that means not coming back.

Some media, social and otherwise, lament that the lack of labor is caused by too many people getting “something for nothing” in the form of stimulus payments and unemployment compensation. The stimulus payments (which in many cases wouldn’t cover a month’s rent) was intended as economic adrenalin to keep it afloat; it has since dissipated. Unemployment is gone for many this September, but again, much of that covered for domestic survival as much as a loss of work. With the economy improving and hopefully public health concerns mitigated, state governments have correctly conditions of searching for work as a condition for continued payments.

So some folks will be looking for work, but others are choosing to stay on the bench. Why? Most economic reports include worker caution over catching Covid (especially the delta variant) again is one factor, the other is availability of child care (another sector of the economy that has suffered). But another aspect is personal and not easily weighed against economics; it’s whether the risk, reward and compensation is worth it in the first place. This is especially prevalent among lower-wage worker in automated, repetitive-task or customer engagement work, especially in the service, restaurant or retail industry.

Throw into the well-publicized instances of the degradation of civility in our society (and yes, I will blame in large part the last four years of the Trump administration, where insult with spectacle have become mainstream due to his example). A restaurant closes for a few days in Provincetown, Massachusetts because the insults and threats to staff became so frequent; management at a meat processing plant in South Dakota post a “game board” with prizes in guessing which one of the front-line workers will catch Covid, with bonus points if they get sick and more if they die; a Burger King closes in Washington state as all of the employees walk off the job over mistreatment. No amount of pay can cover the loss of dignity and civil treatment.

It’s enough to make any reasonable person truly assess their relationship with work.

There is an economic resolution to the equation, and some employers are getting it. Many employers are getting the fact that labor should be valued, and are paying as such. A Dairy Queen in Washington state offering $1000 bonuses (payable after six months of employment) and $15 an hour; the news that retail grocery stores are now averaging at least $15 an hour or more for their workers. Many other offers are out there, but sadly, some are scams or misrepresentations (the trucking firm in Texas that offered $14,000 a month for tanker drivers, conveniently omitting in their press release that if was for owner-operators, meaning you buy the truck, insurance, maintenance, taxes on your own – which won’t make a dent even with that payout). The other detriment is that $15 an hour, full-time does not cover the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in any of the fifty states.

A discussion for another day is universally-accessible health care. Too many take a job just to have access to health care coverage and ironically make themselves sick working there. Imagine if that base was already covered, and folks could work where they would thrive.

So in generic terms, labor has become a valuable commodity once again; and employers should (and are) responding. I wouldn’t worry about the resulting pressure on prices, I would be more concerned with the exorbitant executive compensation (which could be whittled a bit to pay a decent wage) that purposely drives down wages. And a note to those who want to tar and canvass those reluctant to work as “lazy”; yeah, there are some, but as you may sit in your air-conditioned office (or most likely home) and received a living wage, you should try to relate to those who are trying to eke out a living and support them, just as you have.

Value labor, and labor will value you.