News & Commentary

September 6, 2020

Jacob Denz

Jacob Denz is a student at Harvard Law School

This Labor Day weekend, the state of work in America is at a dramatic crossroads. While professional-class employees work from home at unprecedented rates, the service sectors in urban areas where their erstwhile offices are concentrated have seen job losses by the millions—and those jobs won’t all come back after the pandemic ends, The New York Times reports. The suspension of in-office work, as well as business travel and entertainment, has resulted in decreased demand for sectors such as building maintenance, transportation, hospitality, and food service. To what extent these job losses become permanent will depend partly on the decisions of employers such as tech companies and law firms about when and how to reopen. Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago estimate that 37 percent of jobs can be done entirely from home; these jobs, in fields like legal services, computer programming, and financial services, tend to be highly paid and concentrated in affluent urban areas. Such areas have indeed seen the highest decreases in “activity”—measured by the movement of cell phones in and out of zip codes—during the pandemic. Firms that have learned to conduct business remotely may hesitate to reintroduce costs such as business travel, especially if they are also operating on tighter margins due to the pandemic. But some observers predict that firms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google will eventually resume and even bolster their cultures of in-person work because of the benefits of bringing creative professionals together in the same space. Such decisions will have strong ripple effects on the entire U.S. economy.

In the case of retail, changes due to COVID-19 have compounded an already rapid technology-driven transformation occurring in the sector, according to a summary analysis in Retail Dive. In a paper released by the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center, Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly argue that traditional retail stores will largely survive the pandemic while also accelerating their adoption of already available technologies, particularly self-checkout. Even prior to the COVID-19 shutdown a white paper by credit insurance company Euler Hermes found that the retail sector had shed almost 10% of its total jobs since 2008. The paper also found that four and a half traditional retail jobs are lost for every job created in e-commerce. Besides job loss, adoption of new technologies in retail has increased surveillance of both employees and customers. Some new technologies have also increased the stress of retail jobs as workers must constantly engage with and respond to customers on multiple channels with little respite.

The pandemic has greatly disrupted the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps program for youths aged 16-to-24, leaving many of its 30,000 students afraid they will never receive the occupational training for which they signed up, Bloomberg Law recounts. The Job Corps program is supposed to combine classroom education, mental health counseling, career training, and job placement, but many of those elements have fallen into disarray since the program closed its 121 residential campuses to most students in March. Thousands of students have not received the devices they would need to participate in remote instruction, while students complain that the content of the instruction itself is unhelpful. Contractors who manage the program’s residential campuses have received little support for COVID-19 testing and other necessities for students who remain in residence and little clarity about reopening. Under such circumstances, and facing their own exigencies to secure alternative housing and income, thousands of students have dropped out of the program or stopped participating. Three-fourths of participants in the program are students of color, and many turn to the program to escape abusive homes or violent neighborhoods.

Aside from unprecedented economic disruption in the wake of a global pandemic, Labor Day 2020 is also two months before a U.S. presidential election. In The New Republic, Steven Greenhouse writes that an organization called Union 2020 is making the case for Joe Biden to union households in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. According to Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, a drop-off in support from union households played a large role in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss in those key states. The electoral muscle of unions in those states has declined in recent decades due to both deindustrialization and changes in the legal landscape such as Wisconsin’s adoption of right-to-work under former Governor Scott Walker in 2015. Rosenthal hopes to place the three states back in the Democratic column by highlighting Biden’s role in the negotiations that prevented the collapse of the U.S. auto industry as well as his personal connections to the experiences of working people.

Although unions’ political power is limited on Labor Day 2020, their popularity is at its highest rate since 2003, with the results of a poll by Gallup showing 65% of Americans approving of labor unions. Support for unions is heavily polarized by party, but even 45% of Republicans approve of unions, compared to 83% of Democrats and 64% of independents. Self-reported union membership remains steady at 10%, while 16% say there is a union member in their household.               

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