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NEXT: The Future of “Essential” Work(ers)

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Future of “Essential” Work(ers)
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The COVID-19 pandemic has bifurcated the world of work. For some, their work can be performed while cocooned in private virtual worlds, carried out over Zoom. For others, their work must be performed in the physical, public and increasingly dangerous “real world.” The sight of cities devoid of people, of empty stadiums and deserted beaches has been among the more indelible images of this crisis. Of course, this public space has not been completely without the presence of people: those whom state governments have insisted should continue to work in public have been deemed “essential” workers. These include not only doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, but also food delivery workers, grocery store clerks and Amazon stockers.  

The quarantine has had the effect of dramatically increasing unemployment. One reason might be that work that must be conducted in public plays an outsized role in our economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest occupation in the U.S. is retail salesperson, followed by fast-food counter workers, and cashiers. Emptying the public realm has exposed the vulnerability of these workers, and of the vital role they play in our economy.  

Many of the “essential” jobs are also among the lowest paid in our economy. Before the pandemic, there was a growing movement for a $15 minimum wage that would be of direct benefit to many of the workers in these occupations. And now, given that these same workers have been deemed so essential and necessary in our current crisis, one wonders what this will mean for the future of such essential—and heretofore ignored—workers.  

There are three emerging scenarios for the future of “essential” workers. The first is that, once the crisis subsides and we begin our first tentative—and perhaps foolhardy—steps back into the public realm, these workers—who have been identified as the heroes of this crisis—will be returned to their status as underpaid, under-appreciated laborers.

A second scenario is that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate the trend toward the automation of jobs, especially jobs now deemed too dangerous for human laborers. Amazon stockers have served a critical function, keeping alive the metabolism of the economy. But before the crisis, Amazon was gesturing toward increased automation of their fulfillment centers, which are already highly automated. Might the pandemic provide the opportunity to complete the automation of the warehouse and permanently remove the human workers, under the guise of protecting them from harm?  

Robots are already beginning to appear in this dangerous public realm. In Singapore, one of Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robots is policing public parks, admonishing people to maintain social distancing. 

Pittsburgh International Airport has begun to employ robots to sanitize floors using ultraviolet light. Much of the reporting of this event focused on the use of UV light—which has long-been used in hospitals for sanitation purposes—and whether this is effective in combating COVID-19. But the lede has been buried: “a worker will initially drive the robot around the outside edge of an area that needs to be cleaned, after which the blueprint is saved to memory.” A task that might have been performed by a custodian is now being given over to an autonomous machine. Sanitizing public and other third spaces will be a critical function for the next few years, and this job may well be performed by robots rather than human custodians.  

Indeed, robots have been used in a number of settings during this crisis: to measure the vitals of ICU patients, to bring food to quarantined people at a hotel, and to transport test samples via drones to laboratories. It is perhaps unlikely that robots and autonomous workers will render all of the essential human workers of today’s crisis redundant. And indeed many of the robots being employed are being controlled remotely by human workers. But the increasing use of such robots today might signal the acceleration of the trend toward widespread automation of jobs that we have watched over the last decade. After the crisis ends, “essential” work might be reclassified as automated work.  

But a third scenario that might emerge from the crisis is a new respect—and increased compensation—for the workers who perform these kinds of “dirty jobs.” We have already witnessed protests, strikes, petitions, walk-outs and other forms of labor collective action during this crisis. Worker protests have erupted at Shipt, Instacart, Uber, Amazon, Walmart, McDonald’s and Whole Foods. These protests have, at the very least, drawn attention to the hazardous conditions and poor pay of these now-“essential” workers.  

And this collective action is more organized than labor activism of the last few decades. The site coworker.org, which allows workers to start and organize petition campaigns, has seen the number of such petitions dramatically increase to more than 100 a week. Indeed technology and social media is providing a platform for workers to coordinate their protests across different industries. To what degree will technologically-organized collective action remain a feature of the post-COVID-19 labor landscape? While nothing like the number of workers who engaged in strikes in the 1950s or the 1970s, at the height of the labor movement, the number of strikes by U.S. workers in the last year has been markedly higher than over the past 20 years.

One outcome of this crisis could be that these hitherto low-wage workers receive higher pay and better benefits. Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, concedes that the experiences of essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis indicates that “we are going to have to have this discussion about what types of benefit-support programs are available for a whole host of workers.”

Kroger offered a $2/hr bonus “hero pay” to their employees. (Although it appears that Kroger is now ending this program.) Workers might continue to press their demands even after the crisis has abated, saying that they have demonstrated how essential their labor was, and that they should continue to be compensated accordingly. As the Kroger action demonstrates, however, companies many not be so willing to increase worker pay, especially for those who have engaged in work stoppages and other protests. 

Amazon notoriously fired employees, including warehouse workers, who publicly criticized safety and working conditions at its warehouses. A prominent VP at Amazon resigned in protest and in solidarity with these employees. We may be witnessing the opening salvos of further labor-management conflicts of a kind the U.S. has not witnessed for over forty years, which might signal a resurgence of union activism.  

The overarching question—the answer to which will determine which of these scenarios comes to pass—is how “essential” will essential workers be after the COVID-19 crisis?

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and president of Columbus Futurists

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