News & Commentary

March 16, 2020

Mackenzie Bouverat

Mackenzie Bouverat is a student at Harvard Law School.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted Sunday requesting that private businesses issue work-from-home orders where practicable (but also indicated that the state would consider “mandatory measures” should be businesses fail to cooperate). Many private businesses have voluntarily instituted policies aimed at reducing workplace exposure to the virus. Several technology and energy companies have directed all non-essential staff to work from home. Staff at offshore rigs, refineries and pipelines remain at work. Kraft-Heinz and AT&T (excepting its retail employees, equipment installers, and CNN’s TV talent and production staff) have also instituted work-from-home policies for their office employees.

This week, Rund and Deanna have each written of the public health implications of prevailing American labor policy: the unavailability of paid sick days leaves many workers with no other option but to work (despite whatever risks they confront or pose). This weekend’s cross-sector closures now ushers us to confront increasingly pervasive work stoppages. 26 states have closed all public schools, in some cases planning to move to remote instruction. New Jersey and Alabama state workers are permitted to work from home. Child care centers are closing down across the country.  Several major clothing retailers have closed all retail locations for the next two weeks; most have promised compensation for each employee’s remaining scheduled shifts. These temporary closures of retail stores follow ongoing layoffs in travel agencies, air lines, transportation, entertainment, and food production.

Citing mass non-compliance with recommended social distancing, some states have taken mandatory measures: Illinois, California, New York City, and Los Angeles have ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants (following Italy, France, and Spain).  Ohio and Massachusetts now prohibit all dine-in services, but permit delivery and walkout services. New York, Washington, Tennessee, and New Orleans have restricted restaurant and retail capacity authorizations and issued closure curfews. How American restaurants will approach compensation for employees who are not working is yet unclear.

Deanna also noted yesterday that the Federal coronavirus aid bill leaves millions of Americans uncovered by its mandatory sick leave provisions. As Congress continues to work on addressing the public welfare challenges posed by coronavirus, local governments have also intervened to protect populations from physical displacement: eviction moratoriums are in place in Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Miami-Dade County in Florida; Montgomery County in Virginia; and Travis County in Texas. Louisiana has authorized additional unemployment claims if the claimant’s unemployment is coronavirus-related.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson and The Guardian’s Alex Hern predict that the nascent cultural shift towards working from home will have a long-lasting impact on American workplace norms. Thompson carefully weighs the social merits and demerits of at-home work, but ultimately concludes that—despite its loneliness—keeping workers away from busy cities has positive social consequences independent of the virus. Hern anticipates that ongoing operational changes in workplaces will outlast the outbreak, attributing the shift to employee preferences. Indeed, Thompson does note that employees quit less often and report higher satisfaction while working from home.

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