A Crisis at Work

There’s more than enough chaos going on in the world right now. But amidst the coronavirus crisis, a couple of trends in the world of work are becoming more important.

We have been told for years that working from home, telework, remote work, whatever you want to call it, is a better way to work. Now we are seeing that not everyone can work from home, or can work from home successfully. Nurses, garbage collectors, and grocery store staff are just a few examples of occupations that can’t be done from home. And, as evidenced by the unending stream of complaints on Twitter from new WFHers, working at home – with its isolation and lack of externally-imposed structure – doesn’t suit everyone.

We are also seeing that many jobs with low pay are jobs that perform very important work: for example, caring for nursing home residents, and cleaning health-care facilities. Workers in these types of jobs are especially likely to be underpaid if their employer is running the business for profit. If workers are not paid a decent wage, they often have no choice but to seek additional work elsewhere – and that can have serious implications far beyond the workplace. In my region, the coronavirus has spread from one nursing home to another because workers at the first home were also working at the other home. If these workers were paid a reasonable wage by one employer, they wouldn’t have to do this.

Also, not every worker has paid sick leave – but every worker should. During this health crisis, there have been multiple instances of workers who might have the virus showing up to work because they can’t afford to take time off. We shouldn’t be celebrating companies who have just decided to give workers paid sick leave – we should be asking why they weren’t doing this already.

And we also shouldn’t be celebrating companies that decide to offer compensation to underemployed workers, especially if they only decided to do this after being publicly shamed. And especially if those companies’ operations are subsidized by publicly funded tax dollars.

A bigger truth about work, and the way our societies structure and value it, is emerging from the current crisis.

A business model based on low worker wages and poor benefits is not a sustainable business model.

A commentator in the Globe and Mail newspaper observed that many of the corporate and governmental responses to the coronavirus situation have a “middle class bias” – that the responses are based on the assumptions that workers are in stable jobs with predictable income, and are working for employers that have their employees’ best interests at heart.

In many workplaces, organizations, and occupations, those days are gone. The gig economy is on the rise, meaning that more and more workers are relying on a patchwork of temporary, part-time and contract jobs to make a living. And the social contract that used to join employers and employees in a mutually beneficial relationship – worker productivity in exchange for fair pay and benefits – is largely broken.

But businesses have little incentive to stop using that flawed model, as long as their owners and shareholders are profiting. If anything, there are implicit incentives for employers to not do anything differently: for example, tax breaks that reward job creation and that base rewards only on the number of jobs, not on  those jobs being permanent jobs with fair wages and decent working conditions.

This has to change. This way of doing business has been disadvantaging too many people for too long, and the coronavirus crisis has highlighted why this model is damaging to workers and to the stability and functionality of societies. Goverments are making temporary changes now – but in the long run, they need to implement much stronger minimum employment standards, and address the incentives that indirectly encourage employers to treat their employees poorly.

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