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Arne L. Kalleberg, Kenan Professor of Sociology

The way we work (and if we are able to work at all) has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely result in profound changes in work in the years to come. The need for social distancing is antithetical to our service economy, which is characterized by contact of workers with customers. Manufacturing industries have also been unsettled with the disruption of global supply chains that provide the materials, parts and finished goods on which American workers and consumers have come to rely.

In this short essay, I provide a brief overview of the ways in which the virus pandemic has altered work in the short term, as well as speculate about longer term changes work that may well characterize the U.S. in the future.

Major changes in the way we work are already evident. Nearly all of our classes and meetings are now held virtually, via Zoom, Google Hangouts and other videoconferencing software. While teleworking or online teaching are not new, the scale with which they are now applied is astounding as these practices are extended to telemedicine, concerts, virtual tours of cultural sites, conferences, and other activities that were formerly conducted in person. Social distancing has had major disruptions on airlines, taxis, hotels and other aspects of the travel industry, resulting in huge declines in demand and the loss of jobs for many, and reduced hours and earnings for others. Large numbers of small businesses, especially those that rely on customers (such as restaurants, food shops, and tourism) have gone out of business, leaving their workers unemployed. The pandemic crisis has also led to changes in peoples’ expectations of what they should receive from their work and how to do it. In some cases, companies have responded to workers’ needs by providing them with more flexible working schedules and giving them more control over their time. Over half of U.S. states have provided financial assistance to companies to help them implement work sharing policies to help preserve jobs.

Many of these work disruptions are likely to be reversed when the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control: people will fly again, stay in hotels, travel to beaches, go to concerts and sports events, shop in malls and retail outlets, and go to restaurants and bars. Some of the adapations to the pandemic are likely to persist; for example, there may well be reductions in face-to-face meetings (including travelling to them), as organizations and people may be more likely to realize that they are often not necessary and can be done more efficiently and cheaply virtually. However, the pandemic has revealed certain aspects of work that are likely to be more permanent and may well result in major structural transformations in the nature and terms of work.

First, the huge levels of unemployment and reduced earnings of many who are still employed have exposed the weaknesses of the U.S. safety net and the vast inequalities as to who is a precarious worker. Our system of social protections has largely relied on employers to deliver health insurance and retirement benefits to many workers, for example, and so workers’ ability to obtain them depends on the viability of their employers. This contrasts with the majority of countries in the world, especially rich democracies, in which social protections are provided by the government rather than entrusted to employers. Ideas such as the desirability of government-provided universal health insurance, paid sick and family leave, or pensions do not seem so strange now. The notions that people should rely on the “market” and “pack their own parachute” are increasingly at odds with the needs for collective actions to navigate the new uncertain and insecure future.

Second, we have come to realize that many low-paying, often low-status jobs are really essential to our survival, such as grocery and pharmacy clerks, delivery persons, truck drivers, janitors and cleaners, nursing home aides, and day care workers. Workers in these jobs are vital for the viability of society by providing us with food, care and other necessities of life. The pandemic has underscored the importance of what these workers do and shed light on their low pay, lack of benefits and relatively little control over their schedules. As in the case of those workers who lack social protections, workers in these low paid jobs are more often non-whites, immigrants, and the disabled; over half of the workers deemed as essential by the federal government during this crisis are women.

Third, the pandemic has suggested the possibilities of a renewal of worker power by mobilizing people to protest their working conditions and low pay, as in the strikes by Instacart, McDonald’s, Walmart, Amazon and Whole Foods workers. In many cases, these workers have won hazard pay and received greater safeguards such as personal protection equipment. Sectors that have not been traditionally unionized are now beginning to organize, such as tech companies, contract workers, digital-media brands, museums, political campaigns, and cannabis shops. Highlighting how essential many low-paid workers are to our society and economy adds fuel to movements that began before the pandemic (such as fast food workers’ “Fight for Fifteen”), as we now appreciate more the importance of low-wage workers to the economy and society and the need for them to survive in order to do their jobs well.

These potentially long-term structural transformations in work that may result from the COVID-19 pandemic may enhance the quality of jobs by extending social protections to all workers regardless of their work arrangement (whether an independent contractor or employee, for example), just as the Great Depression and resultant government actions led to the New Deal and the creation of social protections such as social security and unemployment insurance. The growing realization that many low-paid workers are essential to our society and economy also brings into stark relief the low quality of their jobs and the imperative to provide such workers with living wages. If realized, such changes would begin to address the huge inequalities in our society, thereby facilitating our economic recovery as well as individuals’ well-being.

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