The Coronavirus Reveals Everything That’s Wrong With Work In America
Work looks different today. I don’t mean capital-T-Today as in “not the past,” but literally today, yesterday and tomorrow, for the last month and, in all likelihood, for a number of months to come. Maybe forever.
Work looks like your boss in a hoodie. The books on your colleague’s shelf. A newscaster’s cat. Its soundtrack includes a barely perceptible audio lag and a dog barking in the background. It is illuminated by the fixture with one burned-out bulb over your kitchen table and punctuated by your 2-year-old busting into the room, noticing your manager and entire team video chatting on your laptop screen, and asking, “Who are these people? Is he in him’s home?”
Yes, he is in him’s home. And for the millions of us working remotely during the coronavirus shutdown, we are in him’s home, too. And he is in ours. No one is wearing shoes.
When I interviewed people for this article, asking them about the shifting landscape of work amid the pandemic (while I sat cross-legged on my bed, hiding from my husband and our 7-month-old and our Staffordshire terrier), I was surprised at how many times I heard the word “human.”
The coronavirus has shaken our sense of security, exposing chasms of instability and inequity along fault lines that already existed in the mantle of society. But it has also exposed our humanity, the private portions of our lives we pack away before commuting to the office, the fine lines we walk between personal and professional, the unraveling threads by which so many in this country are just barely hanging on.
When we eventually emerge from the panic state into whatever life-after-coronavirus looks like, experts are genuinely optimistic that work can foster our humanity instead of punishing us for being human.
“What I’m hoping this has done is to swing the pendulum back from our individualistic system … toward more of a collective consciousness, and the idea that we’re all in this together,” said Arne Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author, most recently, of “Precarious Lives: Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies.”
Making Work Work Better
For some of the roughly 42 million people who can work at home (about 29% of the U.S. workforce), separation from the traditional office setting is actually bringing workers closer together.
“We’re seeing a lot more listening,” said Jessica Orkin, CEO of the consultancy SYPartners, describing how the companies she works with are adapting to business in quarantine. “A lot more communication where CEOs and leadership teams are communicating more regularly, more vulnerably, more humanly. Everybody’s lives are on display.”
“Somehow it’s more intimate,” said Raj Sisodia, a business professor at Babson College and co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism movement. “We’re peeking into each others’ homes. There’s a level of human connection that can happen if you use technology in the right ways.”
The clarion call for humanity is on Zoom.
What’s more, that Zoom call is a symbol of freedom: from the tyranny of rush-hour traffic, from missing pickup at your child’s day care and from that other pandemic, burnout.
Dan Schawbel, managing partner of research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence and author of “Back to Human,” called the current situation the grand remote-work experiment, and it’s looking good. “People are going to want to keep doing it for the rest of their careers. If a company doesn’t offer flexibility, it’s going to be strange. People expect certain benefits outside compensation.”
Not just remote work, but flexible hours, job sharing, paid parental leave — the ability to work where and when you’re most comfortable and productive, to be there for your family and to attend to your personal well-being. Some companies have already shown that instituting a four-day workweek, while still paying employees their full salaries, can improve work-life balance and combat burnout without sacrificing productivity or profits.
“Coronavirus has poured gasoline on a lot of these workplace trends,” Schawbel said.
“Employers have to be willing to accommodate workers’ needs more,” Kalleberg said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of shifts.”
The option to work remotely (for those who have the privilege to do so) isn’t just good for people, he pointed out, it’s good for the planet: “We don’t need to go to all these meetings. We don’t need to travel to all these places, meet for a half a day and travel back.”
Americans make about 460 million business trips a year, about 1 in 6 by plane. Transportation is the country’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; more than half of that contribution comes courtesy of cars, trucks and minivans, while about 7% is from commercial flights.
“We are learning to work remotely and collaborate in different ways. We can operate in ways that are more efficient — fewer people commuting, less pollution — and still achieve what we want to achieve, without all the pressure on the environment and well-being,” Sisodia said, calling this “spring training for the real game to come” of addressing the climate crisis.
“Under intense pressure of circumstance, human beings are capable of innovating rapidly,” he said.
‘This System Never Worked In The First Place’
While those of us currently toiling in the Sweatpants Sector can grasp at the future promise of a more human, more sustainable workplace, an overwhelming number of Americans are barely hanging on in the here and now. Tens of millions of people, including those in the service industry and people with uncertain or precarious jobs, find themselves adrift in a system that never worked in the first place, with their livelihoods at risk on the one hand and their lives at risk on the other.
“The pandemic is the great revealer of the pain points, the tender bits, the parts that are absolutely not working within our society, within our government, within business, within how we as individual people have been living our lives daily,” Orkin said. “It reveals just how many of us as Americans are living on the edge and how there’s not enough support underneath us.”
About 26 million people have lost their jobs since mid-March. But even before COVID-19 hit, a quarter of Americans were scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck. An estimated 44% worked low-wage jobs, earning a median income of less than $18,000 a year. More than a third didn’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency.
“People are living so close to the edge of financial ruin,” Sisodia said. “These were booming times, and yet ordinary, average people were really struggling. Our system really wasn’t working. At some companies, HR will give people the forms to apply for government assistance because they pay them so little.”
Now, as unemployment hits record levels, many are being pushed off that edge into financial free fall. People are lining up for food banks by the thousands, and perhaps millions won’t be able to pay rent on May 1.
For some of the 10 million restaurant employees who’ve lost their jobs since the shutdown — along with several million other tipped-wage earners in salons and carwashes across the country — unemployment may not even be an option because they make too little money.
People who work for tips are only required to be paid $2.13 an hour, the federal subminimum wage. Only seven states pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. In 28 others, tipped minimum wage ranges from just above the federal limit to about $9 an hour.
Saru Jayaraman is the president of One Fair Wage, a national organization fighting to raise wages and improve working conditions for service workers. She told me about a waitress in Michigan (one of the 28) who wrote to her recently: “She said, ‘I make $3.52 an hour. When I went to apply for unemployment and I reported my income based on wages plus tip, they denied me because they said I didn’t meet the minimum threshold for the state to recognize that you had a job.’”
Because she can’t get state unemployment insurance, Jayaraman said, she can’t get the federal unemployment bonus for people who lose their jobs because of the pandemic. “She will not get that $600 because she earned a frickin’ $3 wage before coronavirus.”
“It’s pointing out to everybody why this system never worked in the first place for millions of people,” Jayaraman said.
Even for those who’ve kept their jobs, “the lack of social protections is becoming really stark right now,” Kalleberg said.
Many of the essential workers risking their health every day, including grocery store clerks and delivery people, are among the lowest paid, and some 70% don’t have paid sick leave. On any day, this is a national shame; the United States is the only rich country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid sick or family leave. In the middle of a virus outbreak, it’s a public health threat.
Without paid leave, people may come to work even if they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 to avoid losing income, which means they could spread it to co-workers and customers. What’s more, they might not get tested or treated for the disease, and they may not be able to afford to take off enough time to effectively quarantine. And with kids home from school, people have to take unpaid days if they can’t find child care.
That’s why Rod Little, CEO of Edgewell Personal Care, which owns Schick, Playtex and Wet Ones, quickly instituted a pandemic pay policy that allowed hourly workers at the company’s manufacturing facilities to take sick days without using their paid time off and while still collecting their full rate for two weeks (and being compensated at 70% for 12 weeks after that).
He explained it to me simply: “If you’ve been exposed [to coronavirus], don’t come in, we’ll still pay you, just let us know. If your kids were sent home from school and you have child care needs, don’t come in, we’ll pay you.”
“The last thing we want to do is incentivize people to come in,” Little said. “That’s a bad incentive.”
Little said that in the last month, 40% of his hourly workforce has taken advantage of the extended paid leave.
“That policy has cost us in lost sales because we had to cut orders we couldn’t fulfill, but it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Starbucks is paying all its employees through May 3, whether or not they come to work. After that, anyone who contracted or was exposed to COVID-19 can receive full pay through the end of the month while they self-isolate. (Employees who keep working during this time earn an extra $3 an hour.) The company has been lauded for its extensive mental health benefits, to which it added, in April, 20 free mental health sessions a year for every employee and their dependents.
Of course, no discussion of the perversities of employment in America would be complete without mentioning the enduring quagmire of employer-sponsored health insurance. It was failing people before coronavirus — by one estimate, each year more than 130 million Americans struggle to pay their medical bills, including those with health insurance — and it isn’t getting better now.
“Our employer delivery system of benefits is just not workable in a situation where you’ve got 22 million people unemployed,” Kalleberg said.
We have come to think of employer-sponsored health care as normal. It’s not. Kalleberg described America’s employer-driven benefits system as “a historical anomaly.” It dates back to World War II, when employers, faced with a labor shortage as men and women joined the military, offered health insurance benefits to compete for a thinning workforce.
“Other countries do it,” he explained, but not to the extent we do here. “The United States and Turkey are the only countries in the world that have health insurance tied so much to the employer. It’s very unusual.”
The U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee universal health coverage, and adults in the United States are “far more likely than those in other countries to go without needed care because of costs,” according to the Commonwealth Fund. Health care spending is higher here than in other countries, too.
“Today if you went into a room and talked to CEOs and asked them, ‘Do you really want to cover health care costs?’ they don’t even want it. They don’t want to deal with the paperwork. It’s annoying for them. But it does give them leverage,” Schawbel said. “It can be used as a weapon against employees: If you lay me off, I don’t just lose my job, I lose my health care.” So we put up with bad bosses and toxic work environments to keep ourselves and our families covered.
And then the unthinkable (but likely inevitable) happens: We’re hit with a global health crisis that crushes the economy, stripping people of jobs and the health insurance that comes with them, just when it’s needed most.
So Who’s Responsible?
Some believe — with varying degrees of certitude — that the pandemic will spur business leaders to better protect the workers of America. But is that the role they should play in our lives? Asked another way: While we’re taking care of business, whose job is it to take care of us?
“In a free-market system, governments don’t take care of us. We are supposed to take care of each other as human beings,” Sisodia said. “Business is a way we can do that at scale.”
Change was already coming, he asserted, pointing to a statement of purpose signed last year by 181 CEOs of some of America’s leading companies, together employing more than 15 million people, committing to serve not just their shareholders but all stakeholders — including employees.
“America’s businesses have been a critical engine to its success,” the statement reads. “Yet we know that many Americans are struggling. Too often hard work is not rewarded, and not enough is being done for workers to adjust to the rapid pace of change in the economy.”
The decree signaled a significant cultural shift in the corporate sphere, though it remains to be seen how the signers put the purpose into practice.
Down here on the ground, Jayaraman said she’d already heard from many restaurant owners who, desperate to survive the crisis and seeing their employees rendered destitute practically overnight, are ready to accept that it’s time to change the food service model, which, with only a handful of recent exceptions, has essentially left it up to the customer to pay servers.
“A lot is going to come from employers taking the bull by the horns and finding ways to get work done and preserve workforce” through and beyond the current crisis, said Kalleberg. But that won’t be enough.
“The idea that the private markets should be the decisionmakers and the best thing government can do is leave business alone — I don’t see that now,” he said. “We’re relying on the government or some sort of collective response to this because we realize we can’t do this as individuals.”
Kalleberg harkened back to the New Deal as proof that a national social safety net is possible, including, at some point, a health insurance system that isn’t tied to employment. He applauded the work of governors and mayors, who in some states are already experimenting with minimum wage and paid leave laws, and giving retail workers more control over their schedules.
If it’s the government we rely on to mandate change, he said, “it’s going to be state and local governments, because the feds are not responding.”
Though trust in the government may not be especially high right now, almost across the board, the experts I spoke to said the government needs to be part of any meaningful solutions to our broken employment system: from equalizing pay to establishing comprehensive wellness protections and weaving a social safety net strong enough to catch workers when they fall.
Schawbel is incredulous that companies will, for instance, expand paid leave on their own — or at all. “It’s bigger than corporations. Governments have to promote it and force companies to do it. But companies own our government, so they won’t.”
Orkin, too, has doubts, but they’re laced with optimism. “My hope — I speak from a place of hope but not entire confidence that this will all happen — is that companies will pay ever more attention to these essential workers and be ever more thoughtful about designing policies to support them. And it goes well beyond financial support (though that’s a good place to start). It goes deep into health, wellness and creating environments and workplaces that are nurturing, and creating space for creativity, for personal connection — the things that make us human.”
There’s one thing she is sure of. “Many of our clients are [asking], ‘Who are we going to be on the other side of this?’ It will not be who we were going in.”
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