Could the Pandemic Wind Up Fixing What’s Broken About Work in America?

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Crises like pandemics, economic collapses and world wars have, at times throughout history, ended up reordering societies — shrinking the gap between the rich and the poor, or empowering the working class. The Black Death helped end feudalism. The Great Depression helped lead to the New Deal. Never has extreme economic inequality shrunk in a meaningful way, says the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, without a major crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic, as of now, is not on the order of the plague, but it’s hitting the United States during a period of agitation about worsening inequality and waning power for workers. Already, it has made stark how precarious life is for many American workers, causing some to revolt. How employers and policymakers respond could improve work in the United States for the long term — or make the existing problems worse.

“Pandemics as a social shock do give workers more leverage to demand things,” said Patrick Wyman, a historian and host of the Tides of History podcast. “Crises like these reveal what is already broken or in the process of breaking.”

“They are attacks on a particular socioeconomic way of organizing your society,” he said. “The question is whether your institutions can make collective things happen.”

The United States is distinctive among rich countries in its lack of worker protections like nationwide paid sick leave, paid family leave and universal health insurance, and in its minimal labor union membership. For both high and low earners, many employers expect workers to be on call around the clock. Companies are typically beholden to shareholders first, above employees, customers and communities.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shown the flaw in that logic: Worker well-being is the foundation for everything else.

Already, Congress has given some workers paid sick and family leave for the first time. Companies have started to offer paid leave, subsidized child care and flexible work schedules. Millions of Americans are working from home — which could reset workplace practices even when they return. People are recognizing the importance of many jobs that have long been undervalued, like janitors, child care providers, teachers, health aides, delivery people and grocery store workers.

There is no guarantee of a positive outcome for workers; it depends in large part on the choices made in the next months. Even if some past crises have ultimately given workers more leverage, the opposite could be true this time, given the high levels of unemployment. The American response has been less generous than that in other countries: Denmark, Britain and Germany are all paying large portions of wages while people aren’t working so that companies can keep them employed.

But if more Americans perceive that the system has fundamentally failed them, experts say it could lead to widespread demands for better protections. Millions of people have suddenly lost their jobs, along with their health insurance and other benefits. Partisan disagreement has slowed government assistance, and many workers are excluded from the assistance Congress has authorized. In many ways, the pandemic is exacerbating inequality: Staying home or seeking health care is easier for the rich than the poor, and early data show the virus is disproportionately affecting African-Americans and Latinos.

“You have already seen a reduction in economic inequality over the last few weeks because of the stock market, but there are potential longer-term effects for the 99 percent,” said Mr. Scheidel, who wrote “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.”

“The poor will only be better off if it leads to policy change in an aggressive way,” he said.

The Black Death — when the bubonic plague killed an estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population in the mid-1300s — is an extreme example of how pandemics can rebalance societies.

Ultimately, it helped end serfdom in parts of Europe. Because so many people died, labor became scarce, and workers had more sway with landowning lords. Many peasants could, for the first time, own land or move for opportunities.

“It’s embedded in a larger series of economic shifts in Western Europe, but the economic impact of the Black Death is the thing you cannot possibly overstate, because it’s a shock to both the supply of labor and the demand,” Mr. Wyman said.

“If you’re a serf before the Black Death, you are in bad shape, you have no leverage — the lords can demand a lot from you,” he said. “After the Black Death, when the lord says, ‘Come plow my field,’ you don’t have to do that anymore.”

It appears the coronavirus pandemic will be nowhere near as deadly as the plague. But, he said, “even a relatively small-scale shock like this reopens the realm of the possible.”

Six centuries later, in the United States, a growing labor movement before World War I culminated, after the war, in stronger unions, widespread strikes and the end of the 12-hour workday. The war, in addition to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, resulted in a shortage of working men, so many of these jobs opened to women for the first time. In turn, women gained more power to argue for things like higher wages and the right to vote.

The Great Depression led to the creation of America’s safety net with the New Deal. The only time the United States had universal public child care was during World War II, when the country needed to make it possible for women to work while men were at war.

The process hasn’t been smooth, or without disagreement and setbacks. In response to the labor demands in England brought about by the plague, the king issued an ordinance that included a maximum wage law. Many of the gains won by the labor movement in the United States in the 1920s were eventually reversed. New Deal policies faced significant political resistance from critics who said they raised the deficit too much and veered into socialism. From the start, those policies excluded many racial minorities, particularly women.

A crisis on its own has not been enough to start a labor movement, but if a movement has been simmering, a crisis can make it boil over, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For example, he said, the conditions weren’t right for workers to revolt during the 2008 recession, but this time they might be.

“We have had a decade and more of agitation, planning, think-tanking on the need to solve problems of inequality and capitalist dysfunction, and so these ideas are more prominently on the agenda, and not only of liberals,” he said.

During this pandemic, workers in the United States have organized strikes at Whole Foods, Instacart and other companies, asking for protections like hazard pay, gloves and sick leave. Congress has passed policies, albeit temporary ones, that would have been politically unthinkable before now, including paid leave and direct payments to individuals. Democrats have introduced bills to make some of the benefits permanent.

Some companies, including Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and other chains, have permanently given workers paid sick leave. (Others, including Starbucks and Walmart, have offered paid leave but made it temporary.)

“This is truly a once in a generation opportunity,” said Janelle Jones, a managing director at Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive economic policy group. “Policymakers need to focus on restructuring our economy in a way that rebalances power toward workers.”

For hourly workers, the importance of paid sick leave has become clearer. Just one in three service-sector workers has it, according to data from the University of California’s Shift Project, which runs a large and continuing survey of these workers, and 60 percent say they go to work when sick.

“What feels different, like an opportunity for change, is the public health case is just so obvious and strong,” said Kristen Harknett, one of the leaders of the Shift Project and a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “We’ve never before had such evidence for how this collectivizes the problem. It’s not just the bottom line.”

For white-collar, salaried workers, coronavirus is, in a way, offering a natural experiment, by forcing companies to let people work from home, create their own schedules and spend more time with their families. It could convince companies that constant face time is unnecessary, said the sociologists Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, who this year published “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.”

“Part of the reason companies haven’t really changed is it’s a shift in mind-set to not focus on hours and being instantly responsive to a text at 9 p.m.,” Ms. Kelly said. “It’s a shift to working on the assumption that employees should decide when, where and how they do their work.”

An abrupt shift to working from home with schools closed is in no way a perfect experiment — people may feel less in control of their lives than ever, and most have no child care. But now, Ms. Moen said, it’s forcing companies to innovate.

“It’s no longer, do they want to,” she said. “We have to think of new ways of working, and sometimes a crisis can be an opportunity as well as a danger.”

The policy changes that have already happened in response to the virus have come very quickly. They have illuminated how relatively easy it would be for workers to have these rights — employers or policymakers would just have to say so. It may be hard for them to take back benefits, analysts said, even those they’ve said are temporary.

“Once you make it clear that these things are within your capacity to do, people’s baseline expectations change,” said Mr. Wyman, the historian. “That was true of the New Deal, the Great Society, Obamacare. We can do a lot more than we think we can. Crises are a useful reminder, useful in a tragic kind of way, of what we can do if we wanted to, if we had the will to do it.”

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