Posts Tagged ‘employers’

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When social solidarity is essential, it’s common to hear pious sermons against class warfare. Unfortunately, there is a class war. And its victims, so many of them front-line workers, didn’t start it.

E. J. Dionne Jr.

New research confirms what we’ve all been seeing for the past couple of months: the lowest paid, most precarious workers are the ones who are being forced to face the choice between their jobs and their lives.

And, looking forward, as those in charge push to reopen the economy, the most vulnerable workers are the ones who will most find themselves caught up in the ultimate dilemma of capitalist employment during the COVID-19 pandemic: stay at home without the ability to earn a paycheck or go back to work and increase the chance of getting the dreaded disease.

A new working paper by Simon Mongey, Laura Pilossoph, and Alex Weinberg explains why. Workers in low-work-from-home jobs (the chart above on the left) or high-physical-proximity jobs (the chart on the right) are more economically vulnerable: they are less educated, earn lower incomes, have fewer liquid assets relative to income, and are more likely renters.

Moreover, they found, those same workers (who, for example, lived in areas with less pre-virus employment in work-from-home jobs) saw smaller increases in the rates at which individuals were able to stay at home. At the same time, workers who were employed in occupations with low work-from-home scores experienced larger employment losses.

In recent months, then, workers at the bottom of the economic pyramid were more likely to be either laid off and forced onto the ever-lengthening unemployment lines or required to continue to labor under perilous conditions because their jobs didn’t allow them to work from home.

Now, as their employers attempt to reopen their businesses, many vulnerable workers will lose their unemployment compensation. Therefore, they will be forced to have the freedom to work not from home, but on-site, in close proximity to other workers and customers. That also means they’ll be closer to and caught within the cruel circuits of coronavirus contagion—thus imperiling themselves, their families, and their communities.

The authors of the report succinctly and accurately characterize the cruel dilemma created by American capitalism in the age of the pandemic in the following manner:

Already more economically vulnerable workers are disproportionately exposed to unemployment now, and infection in the future.

 

G.E. employees and their families protest on March 28 outside of Appliance Park in Louisville

It’s now an almost daily occurrence: Donald Trump starring in the White House pandemic briefings, flanked by business executives—from Walgreens, CVS, Target and a host of laboratory, research, and medical-device corporations—to form a mutual admiration society.* The various scientists, public-health experts, and emergency personnel, the ones people want to hear from, are accorded third rank.

And American workers are nowhere to be seen—or heard—even when, as on 24 March, Trump decided to speak for them as wanting nothing more than “to get back to work.”

The fact is, while millions and millions of workers have been furloughed or laid off in recent weeks, waiting desperately to receive financial assistance, many more continue to be forced to have the freedom to labor for their employers on a daily basis. They leave their families and venture out—too many with no alternative but to expose themselves to the risks of the pandemic during their commute on public transportation—and then submit to even more risks on their jobs, with little in the way of protection, as some of their fellow workers contract COVID-19.

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As Francis Prose explained, many working-class people don’t have the luxury of social distancing on their way to work:

Among the most disturbing are the photos and videos of jam-packed New York subway stations and cars, crowded with passengers – mostly people of color – on their way to work. Some passengers are wearing masks, some aren’t. Whether they like their jobs, believe in what they do, worry about health protections at work, fear losing their health insurance, if they have any, they probably have something in common: they wouldn’t be on this packed subway if they didn’t have to be.

And then, once they get to work, there are the dangers of laboring alongside others or interacting with possibly infected clients and customers. Think of all the hospital workers and other first responders, supermarket clerks, janitors, and nursing-home aids, as well as all the other members of the working-class who cannot work from home, but have no choice but to go their jobs in the factories, stores, and delivery services run by the CEOs who are fêted at Trump’s briefings.

It’s no wonder, then, that Amazon driver Maurice Baze called the situation “a lose-lose.”

If I don’t go to work, I can’t pay my rent. If I do go, I could get sick and never work again because I lost my life.

American workers, lest we forget, live in a country with no federal laws requiring paid leave for family matters or their own health.** And many of their employers have simply refused or been slow to provide personal protection equipment and to enact new safety procedures on the job.***

So, workers have had to take things into their own hands—not just individually (for example, by staying home), but collectively—by using one of the few tools at their disposal: the strike.

By my count, there have been more than a dozen work stoppages across the country in the past two weeks. They include the following:

Amazon workers on Staten Island (and the worker who organized the strike was subsequently fired)

Instacart employees

Whole Foods “sick-out”

Bath Iron Works shipbuilders

Fiat Chrysler plant in Michigan

Birmingham, Alabama bus drivers

Bus drivers in Detroit

Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh

Kroger warehouse workers in Memphis

•Workers at a Perdue processing plant in Kathleen, Georgia

•Cooks and cashiers at a McDonald’s restaurant in San José

•Fast-food workers at McDonald’s restaurants in St. Louis, Tampa, and Memphis

•Workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Los Angeles

Other workers (for example, at the GE Appliances plant in Louisville, Kentucky) have engaged in protests against the reopening of factories.

Even in the best of times, millions of American workers are injured, succumb to illness, or die on the job.**** This year, unless employers are forced to implement the appropriate safeguards and give workers a say in when and how they work, we can expect those numbers to rise.

Until then, American workers will face a no-win situation and be forced to take matters into their own collective hands.

 

*Starting with the 13 March news conference, when Trump first (finally) declared a national emergency. Fortunately, more and more networks are cutting their coverage of or simply refusing to air the daily White House briefings.

**The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act does require certain employers (only those with fewer than 500 employees) to provide workers with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19, and only until the end of 2020.

***For example, it took Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, until this past Tuesday to start implementing new health and safety procedures for workers due to coronavirus concerns.

****According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf), 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers in 2018; 5,250 fatal work injuries were recorded by the BLS.

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Does anyone really need any additional evidence of the lopsided nature of the current recovery?

Employers certainly don’t. They’re managing to hire additional workers, thus lowering the unemployment rate. But they don’t have to pay the workers they hire much more than they were getting before, with wages barely staying ahead of the rate of inflation. As a result, corporate profits continue to grow.

Clearly, what we’re seeing remains a one-sided recovery: employers are getting ahead—and their workers are still being left behind.

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 164,000 in April, thus reducing the headline unemployment rate to 3.9 percent and the expanded or U6 unemployment rate (which includes, in addition, marginally attached workers and those who are working part-time for economic reasons) to 7.4 percent.* Meanwhile, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by only 5 cents in April—an annual rate of just 2.7 percent (just a bit more than the current inflation rate of 2.5 percent).

Sure, employers complain that they can’t hire the workers they need—persistent gripes that are dutifully reported in the business press. They may even be paying one-time bonuses. But they’re certainly not increasing wages in order to attract the kinds of workers they say they want.

That’s because they don’t have to. Most of the new jobs are being created in sectors—like professional and technical services (an additional 25.8 thousand jobs in April), temporary help services (10.3 thousand), health care (24.4 thousand), machinery (8.4 thousand), and accommodation and food services (18.9 thousand)—where there are plenty of still-underemployed workers to go around. In addition, most of those workers are not represented by unions, and therefore aren’t in a position to negotiate for higher wages.** The decline in government jobs means there’s little competition for the nation’s workers. And employers continue to have the option of automation and offshoring, which also keeps workers’ wages in check.

So, employers in the United States are able to advertise jobs that pay $10, $12, or $20 an hour, which desperate workers are forced to have the freedom to take—because, within the existing set of economic institutions, the alternatives are even worse.

American employers, with their higher profits and new tax cuts, could be paying higher wages. But they’re choosing not to.***

For them, it’s certainly been a beautiful recovery.

 

*After revisions, job gains in the United States have averaged 208,000 over the last 3 months.

**However, one group of workers without union representation—teachers—have decided to initiate strikes and other work stoppages to respond to cuts in their wages and education budgets. As North Caroline kindergarten teacher Kristin Beller explained, “We are done being the frog that is being boiled.”

***Except, of course, the portion of the surplus they have been distributing to their CEOs.

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The history of capitalism is actually a combination of two histories: it’s a history of employers attempting to hire workers and develop new technologies to make profits and expand the reach of capitalism; it’s also a history of workers banding together to improve wages and working conditions and imagine ways of moving beyond capitalism.

The World Bank’s World Development Report, currently in draft form, comes down firmly on the side of employers and their historical role.

The theme of the 2019 report is the “changing nature of work.” As envisioned by the reports authors,

Work is constantly being reshaped by economic progress. Society evolves as technology advances, new ways of production are adopted, markets integrate. While this process is continuous, certain technological changes have the potential for greater impact, and provoke more attention than others. The changes reshaping work today are fundamental and long-term, driven by technological progress, globalization, shifting demographics, urbanization and climate change.

Beneath the typically lofty but vague rhetoric, the two trends that haunt the report are the increasing gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else and the jobs that will be eliminated with the use of automation and other labor-saving technologies—leading to “rising concerns with unemployment, inequality and unfairness that are accompanying these changes.”

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So what does the World Bank recommend for beleaguered workers, who are falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top and whose job prospects are threatened by new technologies?

Here, the World Bank reveals which side of history it’s on. It goes after the kinds of protections workers have long fought for, in both developed and developing countries, but which the world’s employers consider onerous and that make the price of labor power too high. In particular, the World Bank focuses on “high minimum wages, undue restrictions on hiring and firing, strict contract forms” that make workers both costly to hire and difficult to dismiss. In other words, the World Bank recommends exactly what employers have always wanted: flexible labor markets.

Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets.

That’s what the World Bank offers to the world’s employers (“flexibility”), coupled with an empty promise to the world’s workers (“more dynamic labor markets”).

But, as even the World Bank recognizes, such changes would leave the world’s workers even more destitute than they are right now. That’s why they shift the focus to a discussion of a a “new social contract. . .to promote fairness and equality of opportunity for people and firms.”

Possible elements of hypothetical social contract could include: (i) creating jobs; (ii) investing early in human capital; (iii) taxing platforms and superstar firms; and (iv) introducing basic income guarantees.

Once again, it’s exactly what private employers want—more workers with additional skills, a redistribution of monopoly rents, and a minimum income for their workers—as long as employers themselves don’t incur any additional costs. Employers retain their control over the surplus, and therefore over both jobs and workers. And the changes proposed by the World Bank promise them even more surplus as they use new technologies and change the nature of the work that is done for them.

What remains intact in choosing the employers’ side of history is that work, however much it is envisioned to change, is still done by employees for their employers. Governments and the rest of society are then charged with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess left by employers, including the dearth of required jobs and the mass of workers who are too impoverished and insecure to satisfy their own needs.

The idea that the worlds of technology and work are quickly moving far beyond the control of employers—well, that’s the side of history the World Bank remains incapable of comprehending.

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According to the Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness represents a growing health epidemic in the United States.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

As it turns out, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also inhibits people’s ability to think creatively and work productively.

Murthy also notes that people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their families. So, he suggests that “the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections” and that employers should follow a series of steps (from evaluating the current state of connections in their workplaces to creating opportunities to learn about their colleagues’ personal lives) in order to create “an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”

The one thing Murthy doesn’t suggest is giving employees more of a say in their workplaces. He takes it as a given that there is a small group of employers, who hire workers and decide how work will be done, and a much larger group of employees, who follow the diktats of their employers (although he does acknowledge that perhaps half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles).

Therefore, Murthy doesn’t even consider the possibility that workers might want to play a decisionmaking role in the places where they spend the majority of their waking hours—and that making decisions as a community or collectivity, instead of just working for someone else, might play a significant role in reducing loneliness on the job and in the wider society.

We already knew a great deal about the perilous condition of the American working-class and the terrible condition of the American workplace. Now we know that American workers are facing an epidemic of social estrangement and individual loneliness.

It’s about time, then, that we rethink the way corporations are structured and allow workers to play in role in deciding—equally and democratically—how workplaces are organized and how corporations manage their operations.

That one change in the economy would have enormous implications, by improving the condition of the working-class, their workplaces, and the degree of loneliness.

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The new jobs report is out and, once again, little has changed—including wage growth (the blue line in the chart above), which for production and nonsupervisory workers was only 2.3 percent.

That may not be good for workers but their employers and stock-market investors couldn’t be happier. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (the red line in the chart above) continues to soar, on the expectation of higher future profits.

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Just in the first couple of hours of trading today, the average is up more than 58 points.