Well, That Was 45

It was, as they say, a year.

I’ve likely said something like this before, but for someone like myself who likes clean starts, having a birthday that comes within days of the turn of the new year is somewhat calming. The coincidental proximity of those events means I get to look back at the life year and calendar year that has passed and the life year and calendar year that is ahead.

To mark the passing of both mile markers, allow me to indulge in a bit of a retrospective on a year that, to put it mildly, was unlike any other I’ve experienced in my now 46 years.

Professional Life

When Jason James called to ask if I wanted to join him in blowing things up at GoNoodle, I couldn’t sign on fast enough. What started in March as a part-time gig quickly became full-time and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. Not only is the work itself rewarding, but reteaming with Jason has been a blast. Best of all, the job is free of the stress that comes with managing a 24/7 social media publishing program, which I was not eager to experience again.

Joining GoNoodle meant saying goodbye to Starbucks, where I’d been working for three-and-a-half years, since November, 2016. That parting was bittersweet, as I’d enjoyed the job for much of my time there and got a rush out of the hustle, even if it was frequently exhausting on a 40+ year-old body. While such things are relative, I always felt Starbucks treated its Partners, including myself, well, and that was proven during the early days of the pandemic. The toughest part, to be honest, was detoxing off the four to eight shots of espresso I drank daily.

The pandemic, combined with the change in my job situation, also meant an end to most all my freelancing. This is disappointing on some level, but as is the case with many people, I will take the stability of full-time employment even if I miss the adrenaline hit of freelance assignments and byline submission.

Writing Life

You might think that, with most all my freelance gigs closing up, I would have absolutely crushed it on the blogging front.

You would be mistaken. Mostly because as that door closed I was also learning how to walk up the stairs again in my new GoNoodle position.

That being said, here’s how last year looked on the blogging and writing front:

  • Chris Thilk: 37 posts, 22,160 total words
  • Cinematic Slate: 148 posts, 134,250 total words

Of course over the course of the year I did publish Productivity Lost (98 posts, 72,380 total words), a project originally conceived and pitched as a book.

And, as is the case with many writers, there are a handful of books, stories and other side projects in various stages of starting or completing scattered across Google Docs, Evernote and a handful of legal pads.

On to 46 and 2021

There have been challenges in the past and there will be new ones in the future.

There have been blessings in the past and there will be new ones in the future.

All I – and we – can do is keep working, keep fighting and keep putting one foot in front of the other. That may sound overly pragmatic as opposed to being inspirational or profoundly introspective, but what were you expecting from a middle-aged Gen X Lutheran? Unabashed sunny optimism?

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2021 Writing Encouragement Courtesy of “Disenchantment”

Luci is here to help you finish that project.

If you’re looking for a way to get your new year’s writing started on the right foot, you need look no further than Luci, the helpful demon on Netflix’s “Disenchantment.”

During the eighth episode of the show’s second season, Bean is trying to process the complicated feelings about her family through writing, and Luci, the demon who accompanies Bean on many of her adventures, offers some encouragement. Only Luci says all of this out loud instead of, as is usual, it being our own internal voice.

To get the ball rolling on 2021, below is Luci’s guidance and feedback to Bean. If any of this sounds familiar, you know you’re a writer.

“Are you sure that’s the right word?”

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“We also cause depression, self-doubt, insomnia, suicide and drug addiction; The Writer’s Life.”

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“Eh, you’re no writer anyway.”

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“That’s a good start, but you’re going to need to procrastinate a lot more.”

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“Wow, you should read this guy’s story. It’s a lot like yours but way better.”

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“You know what would really get those ideas flowing? A nice long nap.”

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“Go nuts, you’ve been working so hard you deserve that second cinnamon roll.”

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Is The Future In-Office, Remote or Both?

Where people work will influence what jobs are available.

Back in March, the assumption seemed to be that most white collar workers being sent home because of the coronavirus outbreak would be able to return later in the year. Many made statements about September or maybe December at the latest being feasible for offices to reopen and “normal” to resume.

Much like how movie studios keep pushing more and more films to the middle of 2021, companies are now beginning to eye July of next year as the soonest that’s going to happen. Most recently, Amazon announced employees can continue to work from home through June, though of course that is just for *office* workers. Warehouse staff, 20,000 of whom have contracted Covid-19, are still required to show up in-person.

With so much still up in the air – especially since the number of Covid cases keeps going up – it’s a good opportunity to review just what options are available.

Option 1: Back In The Office

That companies keep announcing new “return to the office” dates indicates that their intent is to eventually get everyone back under one roof. This is, of course, the norm that businesses have adopted since the middle of the last century as white collar work began outpacing factory, farm and other labor.

But those constantly changing dates and endlessly revised plans are playing havoc with employees, who not only can’t fully make their own plans but who feel the companies aren’t committed to making remote work situations work.

Last month public relations firm Edelman released the results of a survey showing just 14% of employees trust the executives and managers at their companies to make the offices they have largely abandoned safe enough to return to. As Axios points out, that comes at a time when public opinion polls show significant disagreement among many Americans over what constitutes required safety measures, from masks to temperature checks and so on.

One suggestion offered by a real estate company CEO is that businesses will have to lure workers back by creating more of a cool clubhouse environment. Part of his argument is that the environment needs to be one that makes workers want to get out of their homes and become part of the “inner circle” by doing so. Those who don’t take advantage of that situation, he warns, will run the risk of falling out of favor with management and be replaced by AI or just fired and not replaced.

That kind of threat is one that has hung over remote workers for a good long while. The pressure is on them to constantly be available, find their own ways to connect with virtual colleagues and so on. Because they can’t be monitored the old-fashioned way – by physically being seen by their bosses – remote workers are often judged by how communicative they’re being. And since they are not there to participate in office meetups and inside jokes, they can easily become the first to go when it’s time for layoffs.

The argument for getting people back in the office often includes some variation on the watercooler effect, that office environments allow for moments of spontaneous creativity or problem-solving.

That may be valid (even if it is likely widely overstated), but it overlooks how the modern office is almost intentionally designed to contain a multitude of distractions that impair worker productivity. At the very least, a one-design-fits-all-productivity model simply isn’t realistic. People will prefer it to be warmer or cooler, don’t like the color scheme, can’t function well with the approved equipment and so on.

Option 2: Work From Home

In the immediate wake of office closures in February and March there was a lot of, shall we say, chaos. A number of news stories and reports talked about how companies sent everyone home in a hurry with little thought of the equipment people were going to need, how certain logistics were going to work and what kind of expectations there were regarding employee personal lives.

It’s clear that even now, months later, many companies are just starting to figure out what a long-term distributed workforce will look like and how it might function. That adjustment comes well after employees themselves acclimated to the new reality. Interruptions by pets, children, spouses or some combination of all three went from “Wow, this is really weird for all of us” to “Barely worth mentioning” in no time at all. What was so unusual just six months ago is now commonplace.

Not only that, but work from home arrangements offer a number of quantitative benefits that companies would do well to latch on to. For instance:

  • Workers have expressed widespread satisfaction in part because they can more effectively manage both their personal and professional lives from home than they can in the office, where their every action is judged.
  • Because women in particular don’t have to make such an analog decision between family or work, the hit they often take in terms of promotions, raises and so on becomes less severe.
  • A smaller corporate footprint means it might be a lot easier for companies to actually meet their sustainability and environmentally-friendly goals, as paltry as they sometimes are.
  • Worker productivity goes up, despite the fear mongering that happens whenever remote work is discussed.

This is not to say that remote work is always the best option for either party. Many are simply not in a position to make that work for any number of reasons. Some have a difficult time balancing home responsibilities with their work life when not in an office setting. Still others simply don’t have an employer willing to make that kind of accommodation.

Option 3: A Hybrid Approach

It’s incredibly likely that while some companies will be outliers in one of the two directions above, but more could adopt a hybrid model that offers workers some flexibility and builds in protections to guard against remote workers being seen as second class employees. Even so, there are a number of issues that will need to be hashed out both by individual companies and the labor market as a whole:

What constitutes workplace benefits? Over the last 20 years the notion of what constitutes perks in the office has evolved from coffee and occasional donuts to organic vegan fair trade lattes and pan-seared aji. While that’s been used as a competitive selling point when trying to attract and retain talent, it loses much of that power when the interviewee isn’t planning to be in the office to enjoy them.

The question becomes even more stark when you consider that those office snacks may account for a significant savings in employee grocery budgets. Because they’re not in the office to take advantage of the cereal in the kitchen they’re buying their own at home. Nor can they use in-building gyms and other amenities.

On the one hand, employers could offer stipends specifically meant to transfer these kinds of perks to the home environment. They could set up food delivery services, or sign everyone who chooses to up for Peloton. Or…and I’m just throwing this out there…they could take that money and just add it to everyone’s paychecks.

What role will the office still serve? Since the beginning of the pandemic there’s been the assumption that if or when businesses reopen the open office design won’t survive the transition, mostly because it’s the antithesis of the recommendations on how to stop the spread of the virus. So if we’re assuming we’re destined to go back to cubicles and/or offices with some form of social distancing in place, the question then becomes why workers would venture back.

It’s pretty much assumed that the role of the centralized office will shift significantly in the next few years. But instead of becoming the Kool Kids Klubhouse suggested in the article linked above, one would hope that it could transition to the place employees come when they have to or need to, not somewhere they have to be in order to do the very basics of the job. There should be a specific reason for the office, such as a meeting that has to happen in-person instead of virtually. There should be space for people to work if they can’t or don’t want to be remote as well as space for those who have to come in for something on a certain day. But the idea that it’s the only location individuals are allowed to be on a regular basis was antiquated a year ago and now may be dangerous.

What will we require from our digital, local and transportation infrastructures? Following the previous train (sorry) of thought, if fewer people are going into a centralized office there’s less of a need to shape a huge percentage of our societal makeup around getting people to and from said locations.

Highways in particular are ripe for reconsideration. Months after the first wave of pandemic closures were announced there were reports traffic levels dropped significantly, with pollution levels also coming down as a result. Because many states fund road repairs with tolls, gasoline taxes and other car-related charges (which are a regressive tax on those less well-off), that funding fell dramatically. If more systemic change comes to how and where people work, that kind of change could become, at some level, permanent.

It would be nice, then, if we could refocus those efforts on reinforcing digital infrastructure. School closures and the subsequent shift to online learning has starkly exposed the digital divide that exists across the country, with 59% of low-income parents saying the lack of fast internet service at home means their child/ren can’t adequately complete their homework.

This isn’t to say that our physical infrastructure isn’t important, but it was a system built for the 20th century. How we prioritize projects as a society should reflect our priorities, and both internet access and mass transportation – not highways and such – should be at the top of our list.

How do we reshape the economy to fit the decentralized model? Much of what’s been outlined so far all boils down to this question.

The massive support economy that’s made up of coffee shops, convenience stores, restaurants, office supply retailers and more has taken a multi-billion dollar hit since closures went into effect.

If indeed there is a huge shift in the work world then a good number of things will need to be adjusted as a result. It’s not just coffee and auto repair shops. Think about how toilet paper wasn’t available anywhere for about two months because the home retail and office supply chains are completely different? That process will repeat at some level across most industries.

There is, of course, no single answer that will be adopted. Each company will have to figure out what management and staff are comfortable with and adjust as necessary. But just as good coffee and other perks have been used as competitive advantages to attract or maintain talent for the last 20 years, it’s likely that simple location and timing accommodation will take on that role in the next decade or two.

Job Losses, Like Coronavirus, Could Be Nearing a Second Wave

Of course the first wave never really ended, but let’s move past that.

This is what the official unemployment rate looks like, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF), as mapped out over the last two years.

The problem has been exacerbated by the continued resistance of Congressional Republicans to pass another round of economic assistance, meaning smaller businesses in particular aren’t able to rehire or recall workers that may have been furloughed or laid off in the past several months.

Being unwilling to entertain the possibility of including aid to state and local governments, along with continued health-driven school closures is also having a massive impact on public education. Sector employment is already dramatically down and not likely to get better anytime soon given parents are keeping kids out of public schools while those who are wealthier opt for private education. That’s just one way the pandemic has exposed or heightened economic inequality and mobility, and the impact of those disparate educational systems is something we’ll feel as a society for decades.

While the current unemployment rate as of September 2020 stood at 7.9 percent, a fall from its recent high of almost 15 percent, it’s still double what it was at the beginning of the year and what it has been for much of the last four years. And that is not even a real number given people who have either opted out of the job market or who have come to the end of their unemployment benefits and therefore fall off the official roles.

When you add those individuals back into the calculations *and* include those who don’t even make $20,000/year, the total unemployment/underemployment rate becomes 54 percent for White Americans and 60 percent for Black Americans. That’s just one example of how the recession has hit non-white demographics more harshly and a recovery (such as it is) that has also been disproportionally bad for those same groups, widening the already substantial racial wealth gap.

Those who belong to a union, less than 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, are more likely to receive unemployment benefits, in large part because those unions have not only made sure such benefits are part of worker contracts but are also resources helping those filing for aid navigate what can often be a tricky and difficult system. Meanwhile, those who fall into the “long term unemployed” category – meaning they’ve been out of work for over six months – is growing rapidly and, because of their precarious financial status, are feeling more of the economic hurt than others.

As of now nearly 13 million Americans are unemployed. And, just as there’s a new wave of Covid-19 infections across the country that’s threatening school and business reopenings, there’s about to be a massive wave of additional layoffs that’s going to be felt throughout the economy. There are at least a few reasons why that seems likely:

First: As stated earlier, small businesses who have been counting on another Federal relief package are going to be disappointed as those talks remain, for lack of a better word, stalled. Without that assistance, they just can’t keep going. Unlike the biggest companies, which have only gotten bigger as they take advantage of opportunities afforded by everyone’s lifestyle and work life shift, small businesses are 1) stuck in an endless cycle of hope and disappointment when it comes to recovery, and 2) additionally hurt by cuts to Post Office services they rely on.

Meanwhile, those who work on Wall Street would like the recession to be over now, thank you very much, banks record record profits and the most wealthy citizens – those more likely to own individual stocks – have become even wealthier over the course of the pandemic.

If “trickle down economics” were really a thing, which it’s not, that accumulated wealth might be helping some of those in more dire need. Instead the working poor are pushed even closer to the brink of failure because of reduced hours, insufficient support and other problems and an eviction crisis across the country is hitting those most vulnerable harder than others.

Second: The rate of corporate failure is going to get worse. An increasing number of companies are only alive because they’ve gone heavily in debt to continue operating, becoming so-called “zombie companies.” If (or more likely when) government assistance to those companies ends, they’ll at least likely engage in even more significant layoffs or go out of business entirely. The Federal Reserve has slowed its rate of corporate debt purchasing, which may be a bad sign we’re moving in that direction.

Companies that have cut staff over the last several months aren’t adding or refilling positions as quickly as they were eliminated. Over 50% of those who have been laid off because of related closures are still out of work. Even high-wage jobs have stalled out recently as companies seek to do more with the people they have and those people aren’t in any rush to change their situation.

There’s little reason to think that will change if things continue in the current direction, especially if the number of companies that near or experience failure increases.

When the first coronavirus aid bill was being considered by Congress, many lawmakers – even Republicans – came out saying people needed help because they’d lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

The same logic holds true. Putting all of the above together, many of those individuals are still out of work through no fault of their own. They are subject to a system that isn’t hiring, or is only hiring so specifically the requirements are a veritable needle’s eye few will fit through.

What we’ve seen to date is largely a K-shaped recovery, one where the financial health of those at the high end of the economy improves while those at the bottom half see things continue to get worse.

This Isn’t Workers’ Fault

The number of jobs available is already nowhere near the number of people looking for work. If things keep getting worse, that ratio will only become even more disproportionate.

A recent article – one likely intended to be helpful – offered some tips to those seeking work on how to adjust their resume and explain an extended amount of time off, including because of layoffs resulting from pandemic-related business closures. There’s some helpful information there, and in a similar piece on rethinking resumes, around being clear and upfront about why someone was laid off and so on, but the question remains why an individual has to offer this kind of explanation in the first place.

Putting the pressure on the individual to explain why they’ve been out of work for an extended period of time in the current coronavirus-influenced environment seems laughable when you consider how closely the job market resembles the streets of Paris during the French Revolution.

Any gap in employment should be viewed by the company viewing a work history as “Oh…that was during 2020” and gauge accordingly. The individual may have been diligently looking for work and finding none was available.

Despite the “personal responsibility” mindset conservative leaders have imbued society with for the last 50 years, and unlike the public health crisis being faced, the work/jobs situation is one where the individual should have little to no blame. They are not the ones who have put companies in tenuous financial positions. Indeed, companies have justified paying workers so little for decades now in part by saying they needed to build up their savings for a rainy day. Now it’s pouring and we find that capitalism only kept things afloat for about a month and a half.

Workers of all kinds are about to once more feel that pain once more, just as they did 12 years ago as the Great Recession hit, only moreso and with the added worry that comes with living through a global pandemic.

Remote Learning Is Prepping Kids For Lack of Work Privacy

[Extreme Dr. Forrester voice] I know who you are and I saw what you did.]

Stories like this have been coming out with some regularity since late March as schools across the country invest in some mix of digital tools to monitor students during online classes and physical equipment to track them and take their temperature when or if they’re actually on school grounds.

The same kind of thing is happening in the workplace, as employers ramp up their monitoring tools, ranging from thermal scanners to take temperatures as people enter the office to bluetooth distance tracking to facial recognition. HR managers are now fielding all sorts of questions that used to be outside their purview, including those related to privacy issues arising from the kind of data collection that’s happening.

How useful such tools might be in the prevention of spreading Covid-19 or other viruses is questionable, usually cited as not being as effective as wearing a mask and washing your hands. Adopting those tools sometimes seems more like theater designed to make it appear as if a school district is taking steps to mitigate transmission amid a pandemic than to actually do something. Unsurprisingly, the costly systems are more likely to be implemented by private schools than their public school counterparts.

Those tools are, though, preparing the children for the reality they’ll be facing in the workplace as well as much of the rest of the world.

As I wrote on Productivity Lost:

Monitoring methods include keystroke logging, wiretapping, GPS tracking and Internet monitoring, which includes surveillance of employees’ web surfing, email, instant messaging and interaction on social networking sites.

Essentially, anything anyone does on a corporate-owned machine – be it desktop computer or mobile device – can and will be monitored. It all stems from the notion, which is not completely incorrect even if it is overreaching, that everything someone does while at work should be directed toward the benefit of the employer. All time spent should be in service to the company and its stakeholders.

While occasional legal challenges crop up, most of the time the companies wind up just fine, to the point that many have begun installing software on personal mobile devices that allow employers to track both their physical and digital activities.

Much of that monitoring and tracking is being done in the name of productivity, just as the tracking being done of students is being done in the name of keeping kids engaged and seeing when they’re not. What should be viewed as a privacy nightmare involving children unable to provide consent is actually just a preview of what they’ll face when they’re adults in the workforce.

Just as there’s little evidence temperature checks will impact the spread of disease, there’s little evidence digital employee monitoring and tracking improves productivity. In fact, there are a number of studies showing actual or assumed tracking hinders productivity and reduces morale. That, of course, hasn’t stopped companies from getting those systems up and running, especially in the months since the pandemic drastically increased the number of people working from home.

While it’s been widely decried by many parents, in many ways remote learning is better preparing students for their future in the knowledge economy than the regular classroom settings they’d otherwise be in right now. Work, after all, doesn’t consist of moving from one room to the other every 50-odd minutes, checking in with friends you pass in the hallway in between those sessions. It’s sitting in front of your computer over a series of hours that seem to blend into one another, answering emails and sending digital documents.

It also seems to be preparing them for the fact that their activities and actions both physical and digital are going to be monitored, collected and analyzed by overseers they are accountable to but who themselves often face little in the way of accountability.

(featured image via Pixabay)

Productivity Lost Reaches a Conclusion

At the beginning of the yearI made the decision to publish Productivity Lost, originally intended as a book and then pitched as a series of contributed op-eds, as a standalone blog.

It wasn’t a decision I took likely as there were a number of other options available. In fact, I knew I was actively swimming against the tide to some extent, since blogs have largely gone by the wayside as publishers choose either to remain solely on social media or distribute new content as an email newsletter. But I was positive that a blog was the best idea and so I moved forward.

While I’m still happy with having taken this route – mostly because I still feel blogs are the best platform in that they contribute to the long-term health and viability of the open web, something that’s in grave danger – it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses.

In fact, from an objective point of view it’s been a resounding failure. The stats have been less than great in terms visitors to the Productivity Lost site.

That may be because of some factor like links not getting traction on social media.

That may be because the site is still too new for search engines to have assigned any value to.

That may be because my contrarian takes on topics that usually get much more peppy, self-help type coverage in other media just weren’t resonating with anyone.

Whatever the case, Productivity Lost is now complete. In total it came to 98 posts and 72,380 words. Not a bad effort, if I do say so myself.

If you were waiting until it was finished to jump in, I’ve updated the table of contents to make navigation as intuitive as possible, so you can read it all in order.

Though this didn’t turn out quite like I expected, I regret nothing. It’s better that it stands on its own instead of becoming a series on this blog. And I *still* believe links on the web are good for everyone, though in 2020 that may sound a tad naive. While the stats and metrics are such that, if I were my own client, I would be sounding a different tune, I’m just stubborn enough to believe that this was a good idea that just hasn’t been discovered yet.

I hope you agree.

What’s Next For The Unemployed

There’s a reality being left unsaid in our current conversation.

Over the course of the last several weeks there have been countless stories and reports on the continued impasse in Washington, D.C. over how and to what extent to continue the federal unemployment assistance program. Originally set at $600, this program gave those who had lost their jobs in some form or another because of the Covid-19 pandemic that amount on top of their standard state unemployment benefits.

It didn’t take long for the effects to be felt after that additional assistance expired at the end of July, with consumer spending already falling and more. Pres. Trump has floated a few ideas that he can’t actually enact which would reduce those benefits to either $300 or $400 a week, but under those plans (such as they are), those benefits would only last a few weeks, not offering much long-lasting upside for those who still find themselves out of work and without much hope or choice as to what’s going to come next.

One of Republicans’ favorite pushbacks against continuing to offer these enhanced benefits, and part of the reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sent everyone home and said a deal may not be reached until September, is the claim that government shouldn’t pay people more to stay home than they would be making on the job.

McConnell and others, to use a phrase in the popular vernacular at the moment, are telling on themselves with this claim in two ways.

First, it betrays a basic misunderstanding of how unemployment works. Namely, that to continue collecting assistance at all you have to A) be actively looking for work, and B) not refuse any legitimate job offer. It’s not as if people can just keep refusing offers and keep enjoying the unemployment check that arrives each week. McConnell et al either know this and are intentionally misrepresenting the issue, or they don’t and should therefore be removed from a position of dictating the program’s future.

Second, it contains two important underlying facts.

  1. That the wages they were making before being laid off were, in many cases, barely enough to live on and support their families or households with. In other cases it wasn’t enough at all.
  2. That unemployment benefits without that additional federal boost still aren’t enough to live on and support families with.

If either of these weren’t true, you wouldn’t have nearly the level of stories about how people are days, weeks or months away from losing their homes, were having to ration medication, needing to choose between paying for housing or paying for food or make other horrible decisions.

Millions of Americans are still furloughed and unsure when they’ll be able to return to their jobs or if they need to be looking for new jobs, assuming there are any out there to be had as most of the “new” positions in recent weeks are simply companies calling workers back, not creating anything on top of that.

While there are certainly necessary conversations that need to happen now, not in September, about the immediate issue of enhanced unemployment assistance. But at the same time, we need to discuss those two issues, that the systems in place aren’t sufficient to do what they *should* do, even if they are unfortunately doing what they’re *designed* to do.

This is an opportunity to have just that kind of conversation.

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Going in the wrong direction.

It’s nearly impossible to explain or quantify how bad the job situation in the United States is at the moment. As of this writing, the country has seen 20 straight weeks of more than 1 million new unemployment claims, a number that’s almost certainly low given it fails to count underemployment. Businesses that lacked the resources to make it through the unprecedented hardships of the last few months continue to close, meaning there are fewer potential employers to get people back to work.

The stage is therefore set for an even more massive disruption of the U.S. economy and, along with it, people’s livelihoods, health, housing and more. Instead of working to alleviate the problems and minimize the negative impact of those disruptions, current efforts and other thinking seems to be working to make the situation even worse not just now but in the long run as well.

Do You Want a Job Or Benefits?

In the early days of the pandemic closures there was substantial conversation about how the lack of universal healthcare in the U.S. was harmful to workers specifically and the population in general. Because healthcare insurance is tied in most cases to employment status, those being laid off as their places of work closed down were left without that insurance, right at the outset of a public health crisis.

Of course that situation wasn’t new to workers whose employers didn’t offer coverage to part-time employees or the increasing number of individuals primarily employed through the contingent economy, made up of freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors.

Those closures, at least for many white collar workers, meant a sudden change to a work from home reality, one that has necessitated a lot of unexpected priority balancing by all parties. Many workers have found working from home is better than anticipated, while others are finally able to enjoy a situation they might have long lobbied for only to be rebuffed or told the company didn’t have a work from home policy.

At least one op-ed writer wants to make the uncertainty that a lack of insurance coverage presents even more of a feature than it already is while also keeping people from getting too comfortable in their work-from-home situations. He argues that potential new hires be presented with a choice:

  1. Accept a staff position with benefits, but only if you agree to come in to the office
  2. If you are unwilling (or unable) to come to the office, accept a contract position that comes without benefits

In the current reality, that means someone can only get insurance coverage if they agree to put themselves in multiple environments (including commuting) where they are more likely to either get sick themselves or get someone they live with sick. Considering a sick employee is more expensive to the company providing that insurance, the logic is faulty to say the least. Not only that, but it moves us societally into a more untenable position, where more people lack affordable access to healthcare and so make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t, endangering themselves as well as others unnecessarily.

You Are No Longer A Hero

Another positive move taken by companies in the heady days of mid-March was the implementation of many, particularly retailers, of extra pay for workers who found their usual hours cut short because of reduced business hours, a fear of coming in and contracting Covid-19 or other factors. This “hero pay” was touted in many press releases and social media posts and undoubtedly helped a good percentage of those workers continue to make ends meet during difficult times.

It turned out, though, that there was an expiration date attached, one that came around when businesses started reopening and reestablishing normal operations.

Such a milestone is understandable to some extent. The logic is that if normal hours and shifts are available, someone choosing not to take advantage of them is their choice and not the fault of the company.

Of course that overlooks individual situations where someone might not want to return because they live with a medically fragile child, spouse, parent or other member of their house, or that they themselves are at increased risk because of the virus. Or perhaps while their job has returned, their spouse’s or partner’s hasn’t and they’re still feeling the impact of the pandemic on their finances.

Back To Work Or The Beatings Continue

For those who were laid off, the situation is even more dire as Republican obstructionism has resulted in the recent expiration of both the $600 additional assistance on top of state benefits and protections against foreclosures and evictions. For a country that spent much of March and April patting itself on the back for supporting “essential” workers, all of this highlights that it was all lip service, and that we don’t actually value anyone unless they can prove their worth through the size of their paycheck.

Calls to reinstate that additional payment have focused on the potential economic impact of continuing to do nothing, which is only slightly worse than proposals to cut it to $200/week or cap state payments at 70% of someone’s pre-layoff salary.

The argument offered in support of those revised plans is that some people might have been making more in unemployment benefits than they were when they were working, a point of view that seems rooted in the idea that the free market is the only true authority and must be treated as gospel without question. Notably, it’s very different than arguing people don’t need the additional payment to help get through hard times, something that’s much harder to support, mostly because it’s demonstrably untrue. And the frequent refrain that offering too much in unemployment assistance keeps people from going back to work is laughable because such a position requires a profound misunderstanding of how unemployment insurance works, including that receiving it is contingent on A) continuing to look for work and B) not refusing a legitimate job offer.

At the same time, companies that received massive government aid packages continued to lay off workers and offer investor dividends, and CEOs didn’t follow through on flashy promises to reduce their own salaries. Once again, socialism is good for corporations but not for individuals while executives benefit from a lack of accountability as long as they deliver for shareholders. Oh and don’t worry, despite the fact that nurses and doctors still tell stories about lacking PPE and running out of beds the healthcare industry is posting record profits. Other employers used this

Meanwhile extending unemployment insurance is a good thing in almost all cases, as those who are able to wait a bit longer are more likely to find a job that matches their skills and experiences and has a higher salary.

The job market is not overflowing with optimism at the moment. Yes, the most recent report was slightly better than expected, but new closures because of a resurgence in Covid-19 infections across the country means the recovery will continue to be slow to the point of being non-existent, especially for those most at risk of job insecurity. A recent survey found nearly half of those who have been furloughed in recent months expect to lose their jobs entirely in the near future as worker recall slows significantly. The number of those who have been out of work for 15 weeks or more has doubled in recent weeks, providing a clear indication of the new reality.

A recent study showing how those at the low end of the economic spectrum were spending their stimulus money while those who were better off were saving it should offer a clear picture of how tenuous the former group’s position is, as they *had* to keep buying goods in order to live, while the latter simply chose not to because they could.

No Clear Plan On When Things Will Improve

On top of all of the issues above, there remains a massive and suffocating sense of uncertainty lingering over everything.

Individuals don’t know where they’ll be working or what other realities will impact their work environments. 82 percent of companies in a recent survey say they intend to reopen their offices within the next 18 months, but that means anytime between now and the end of 2021.

The timing of those reopenings is not only impacted by the changes each company has made in the physical space but also by the wide availability of a Covid-19 vaccine, something that may still be a year or more off.

Many workers have found working from home is better than anticipated, while others are finally able to enjoy a situation they might have long lobbied for only to be rebuffed or told the company didn’t have a work from home policy. Whatever the case, at least 10 percent of workers could remain fully remote even after the pandemic subsides, a number that is likely low.

Parents don’t know what their kids will be doing. The issue of whether schools should reopen and in what manner has been hotly debated in recent weeks. CDC officials and others have made the case that schools have to open because they provide necessary meals and health services to low-income students. (Note: This ignores the fact that we’ve completely failed to build up any other social safety net and have completely relied on schools delivering these services instead of just focusing on education. But that’s a topic for another time.) Others have focused on the potential negative effects on GDP of keeping schools closed.

When people were first sent home in March many found that balancing work responsibilities with parenting duties – including being surrogate educational aids – was difficult at best, especially if their kids were young. The hope at the time was that the worst of the health crisis would be over by August, though, and things would return to more or less normal.

That hasn’t panned out, as infection testing is still largely delayed to the extent that getting results comes too late to reduce further spread. Schools across the country have enacted a mish-mash of plans, many of which have changed drastically in recent weeks amid the aforementioned spike in infections. That means now people, especially women, have to figure out how to adjust their own schedule to support their children. The problem has been made worse by the radicalization of policy proposals, which would tie Federal aid to schools to their being fully open for in-person classes.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are, of course, no easy solutions that can be quickly implemented, though “wear a mask” seems close to that mark. Any attempt to write specific proposals would likely be futile, but that doesn’t mean we can’t consider a few core principles under which those proposals might be considered.

  1. We will not sacrifice children at the altar of capitalism. Don’t ask me or anyone to put their child in harm’s way so your bottom line can grow. I understand that’s exactly what happens in the gun control debate, but that’s still wrong.
  2. Support people, not companies. When individuals have money they spend it, which keeps the economy going. When corporations have cash they hoard it. Trickle down economics isn’t a thing and never has been.
  3. That schools are for teaching, not social services. Imagine what a school system could accomplish and how well the kids in it could learn if they came to school well-fed and otherwise secure.
  4. People can work from wherever they darn well like. Requiring people to be within a certain geographic area to get a job has little to do with skillset and more to do with morbound traditions. Fix your system and allow for remote work.
  5. That work-life balance often involves trade-offs in either direction. Sometimes people just have to take care of their families. It doesn’t make them irresponsible or uncommitted, it just means they’re human beings. As long as they get their work done, there should be no problem.

This is an excellent time to agree to these basic ideals, along with others, and rebuild many of these established systems from scratch with a new, more inclusive and understanding mindset in play.

Free Speech Standards at Work are…Inconsistent

Whether or not you can speak up depends on whether you’re the one in power.

The idea of free, unfettered speech is under the microscope on a number of fronts lately. In addition to The Letter, which seems to confuse “freedom of speech” with “freedom of access to any platform free of consequences,” there’s also new instances of concern that speaking your mind politically or reacting negatively to a political or social story could be bad for your career.

Of course that’s only if you’re not the one in charge of a company or industry.

In one corner you have the president of Goya Foods, who has come under fire for his praising of President Trump, with some calling for a boycott of the brand’s products. Conservatives, of course, see such a boycott or other repercussions as part of an organized and maybe even illegal effort by The Left to tear down Trump and other Republicans. Anyone should be able to say what they like, and any attempts to stifle that is a catastrophic travesty the likes of which the Republic has ne’ertofore seen.

In the other corner, you have stories like this recent one, about an ESPN journalist suspended over using the F-word in a private email to a U.S. Senator regarding the NBA’s response to democracy protests in Hong Kong, itself an issue rife with concerns over free speech and corporate regulation.

And in a third corner, you have the president himself, who would like to not only actively suppress independent journalism but also publicly criticizes countless companies – most recently NASCAR – any time they take any stance counter to the one he prefers. The consequences of Trump tweeting negatively about a company can have disastrous results.

So, not to be too simplistic about the issue, which is it? Should people face non-governmental consequences for their speech or should such speech come with impunity? It seems the answer depends on which side you’re on politically and, importantly, if you’re a Lord or a Serf in your particular capitalism fiefdom.

If you’re a CEO or other executive, you apparently can say what you want. Throw as many fundraisers as you like for politicians that espouse racism or sexism and who want to continue paying homage to the Confederacy. Anyone who organizes a boycott is trying, it seems, to destroy a perfectly good company because someone in charge voices an opinion.

Never mind, of course, that these free market advocates don’t recognize the free market when it’s actually in action. People deciding, as a group or individually, to support or reject a brand because of their stated stance on a social or political issue is the very definition of the market’s freedom. In fact, it’s the same market freedom that had Republican’s pressuring country radio stations to take Dixie Chicks (now just The Chicks) records off the radio. More recently, there was a call for a boycott of Nike after it signed Colin Kaepernick to an endorsement contract.

If you’re a line worker, though, the rules seem to be different. Very different. The First Amendment doesn’t apply to most nongovernmental employees, and jobs are “at-will” where workers can be fired for any non-protected reason. People can be fired because of what they Tweet, what protests they take part in or anything else and the company can officially say they were let go because of some other work-related reason, even if it’s not accurate.

To be clear, I don’t think people should lose their jobs for political speech or beliefs. Even racists need jobs. But if we’re establishing a system where companies can claim it’s within their moral or religious rights to withhold birth control coverage from employees, maybe it should also be allowed for companies to fire someone because they marched with a bunch of Nazis in Charlottesville.

At the moment, the balance of power seems skewed. You can’t claim people are free to vote with their wallets and with their feet and their choices in one instance and then call foul when they do the same thing in a way you disagree with. And you can’t claim a company is within its rights to fire someone for their beliefs but then complain when there are calls for similar consequences against an executive. Or, at least, you shouldn’t, unless of course your true ideology isn’t free speech but the protection of the powerful and the maintaining of a status quo where individuals have less voice in society than those with access to the levels of power.

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