As I was writing the draft of this article, I was checking my symptoms and awaiting the results of a test I underwent for Covid-19. This virus has upended my life, as it has for every last one of us, no matter where we fall on the socio-economic scale.
But the consequences fall more heavily on those at the bottom end of the wage distribution. That includes those risking their health as they sell us groceries, check our vitals, and sanitize our hospitals. Easily lost amid the chaos, however, is how this crisis may be an opportunity to improve employee protections — and not temporarily but permanently.
During bull markets, employers and policymakers often paint the hardships befalling low-wage workers as stemming from those workers’ personal failures. But when markets crash, we learn how these workers’ troubles were indicative of persistent, system-wide weaknesses.
As Warren Buffett wrote of the insurance failures exposed by 1993’s Hurricane Andrew, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” Pundits cite Buffet to refer to firms that appear healthy during bull markets, only to get eaten alive during downturns. This month, however, the markets exposed a new group of skinny dippers: a government and an economic system that fail workers, and employers who haven’t or can’t fill this gap in public policy.
In response to the novel coronavirus, the stock market has been mostly in a free fall since late February. The low-wage service sector is facing widespread layoffs. And the tumbling markets have uncovered other deep inequalities among workers, who fall into two groups: those with access to employment protections like affordable healthcare, remote work accommodations, paid time off, and job security — and those without.
This second group, which includes the working class, often lack healthcare or face high out-of-pocket expenses. There are nearly 24 million uninsured working-age adults in the United States. Those with only a high school diploma or who did not complete high school are the least likely to be insured. Moreover, racial and ethnic minority groups face significant barriers to “good jobs.” They form 60% of the uninsured population but only 40% of the total population.
A quarter of all U.S. workers have no access to paid sick leave. Work-from-home options are slim, but many can’t afford not to work. Among workers at the bottom 10th of the earnings distribution, only 31% have paid sick leave. For comparison, 94% of the top 10% of earners have paid sick leave.
While many professionals enjoy protections that can help them ride out the pandemic with their livelihoods and family’s health intact, workers in the low-wage service sector have few options or resources to stay home to care for themselves, let alone their loved ones. And that burden to provide care largely falls on women. The workers lacking healthcare and paid sick leave are also the most vulnerable to layoffs and lost hours. The fate of service workers in travel and food services indicate what’s to come. Similarly, gig economy workers, migrant laborers, and those in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable.
How did we get here? Since the late 1970s, executives have prioritized boosting dividends for shareholders over protecting their employees, whose work has been outsourced, digitized, and downsized. In our book, Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance, Ken-Hou Lin and I show how this shift in corporate governance undermined workers’ bargaining power. Although insurance coverage increased from the Affordable Care Act, overall working conditions, protections, and pay have diminished.
A more robust safety net would help to mitigate the consequences for workers today as it shores up the economy against future downturns. For years, U.S. policymakers have considered universal healthcare impractical because of its large scope and high startup costs. But as new unemployment claims surge to historical levels and Americans face the medical precarity of a pandemic, this crisis has laid bare the underlying problem of linking healthcare to employment.
Sick leave and universal healthcare would ease the stressors workers face and ensure the sick have time to recover, making them more productive when they return to work. Without the costs of insuring workers, employers could pay more. An income boost would generate more spending and stimulate the economy.
Broader protections would also support the self-employed, contract workers, and prospective entrepreneurs. The United States has lower rates of self-employment (6.3%) than countries with universal healthcare (e.g., Spain has 16%), and a lower share of employment at small businesses than any OECD country except Russia. Reducing the reliance on big businesses would free workers to find jobs that better fit their skills, creating a more nimble and innovative economy.
The current moment provides an opportunity to make lasting changes to the status quo and improve conditions for all workers. As sociologists have theorized, crises and crashes expose cracks in the systems upholding inequality. And history provides a clue for how crises can provide opportunities to transform society in ways that reduce inequality. After the Great Crash of 1929, unemployment spiked, reaching 25% by 1933. In less than three years, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reduced unemployment to 9%.The New Deal achieved this feat through a vast and broad range of public works and conservation projects.
The New Deal transformed American society — from erecting iconic buildings and statues, to saving the whooping crane, to developing the rural United States, to planting a billion trees. New Deal workers built and renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, and 700,000 miles of roads. The New Deal hired 60% of the unemployed, including 50,000 teachers and 3,000 writers and artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The New Deal modernized, preserved, and employed the country, while reducing inequality between the haves and have-nots.
Facing a similar economic threat in the wake of the pandemic, we have a comparable once-in-a-century opportunity to make lasting changes that address the pressing problems of today, from inequality to climate change.
In today’s crisis, we could double down on the “trickle-down” approach of the 2008 financial crisis: stimulus to the banks, corporations, and their investors combined with tax cuts and temporary wage support as a short-term Band-Aid for immiserated workers. But Lin and I find that this approach left many workers flailing and worsened inequality, because the banks deposited, rather than invested, the stimulus funding and corporations borrowed the money to buy back their stocks, enriching top executives and shareholders.
Last week, the president signed into law a sweeping $2 trillion plan that combines money for states, loans for distressed businesses, and tax relief, paid leave, unemployment benefits, and cash for most citizens. But this plan only gives workers temporary benefits. Although the bill has stricter oversight and restricts buybacks, it is unlikely to reduce inequality unless it addresses the structural conditions making some workers more vulnerable.
While a New Deal approach may be infeasible amid a contagious virus, we can and should enact permanent policies protecting all workers. Sick leave and healthcare should be universal rights. We could adopt a “flexicurity” labor policy modeled on the Danish one. The Danes provide both flexibility for employers to hire and fire workers as needed and security for workers through generous benefits and retraining opportunities during unemployment.
Meanwhile, in my household, after 2.5 weeks of symptoms—from a dry cough to a tight chest to a low fever—my test results came back negative. Thanks to the healthcare and insurance provided by my employer, I will continue to do the work I care about.
While I am on the mend, the workers who sell our groceries, serve us food, clean our workplaces, and drive us to the doctor also need to take care. In this pandemic, they are risking their health and lives. And they deserve the same level of care as the people they serve: access to both preventative medicine and comprehensive treatment, and time to take a break, recover, and care for their loved ones. The coronavirus is our chance to extend these protections during times of crisis and far into the future.