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.

Focusing on Productivity Shouldn’t Push Life to the Back

Distractions of some sort or another are a major issue when it comes to productivity. There’s so much going on in modern life that it’s almost inevitable. Social media beckons with its siren song offering you the latest conversations and updates, whether you’re seeking the solace of puppy pics on Facebook or the outrage engine on Twitter. Text messages beep, emails chirp and so on.

Those sorts of distractions can be a major drain on productivity, which impacts both the individual and the employer. There’s a cottage industry in the business media offering tips for workers on how to reduce the number of distractions that get in the way of them doing their job as well as tips for companies on how to keep their staff focused on what they’re supposed to be doing.

After researching some of the advice and guidance that’s offered, it’s clear that the types of distractions being warned about and guarded against fall into one or more of several big categories. Few stories address these larger issues, though, instead dealing more granularly with things that can be implemented by managers *now* and pointed to when the time for their annual performance review comes around.

Read the previous entries in this series:

  1. The Reality of Offices Negatively Impact Productivity
  2. Employer Technology Investment Impacts Productivity

The Distractions of Life

There’s this apparent assumption on the part of employers that once someone steps on the factory or office floor they shed all other responsibilities and concerns. The very idea of the “company man” was born of this notion, the figure of someone who sublimates himself in the service of his employer, putting those needs and priorities above all else.

While this has changed somewhat in recent years, it’s still not where it should be. And the disconnect between employer expectations and employee reality is a significant source of distractions that impact worker productivity.

There’s a lot of talk in the last 20 years about work/life balance, all rooted in the idea that an individual can fully commit to one identity during this period of the day and other other identity during another part of the day. But that’s not how life works. Kids get sick in the middle of the day, necessitating leaving work to pick someone up from school. Banks need to be called because there’s a problem with an account.

The problem is that everyone is operating on the same schedule and with the same set of expectations. You need to call the bank, but their customer service number is only available from 8am to 5pm the same hours you’re at work. And your office doesn’t like you making personal calls. The school has your kids from from 7am to 3pm, meaning any problems that come up there are going to happen during your workday. And because your office doesn’t have a remote work policy, as many don’t, you can’t just work from home and be a bit more flexible in when you deal with things.

For many workers, the stress of finding childcare is a major drain on emotional resources. That’s because the work and school models are so drastically different. Schools are (usually) close to home and operate from about 7am to 3pm, despite plentiful research showing that’s not the best idea for developing brains and bodies. Offices, though, are often far away and operate from 8am to 5pm, not counting the commutes that are getting longer in major metropolitan areas. So you’re taking parents far away from their children and making them pay for both childcare (or coordinate whatever alternative support systems may be available) and the commute.

That sounds like a system designed to create a distracted worker, not a productive employee.

While more companies are offering some version of “parental leave” as a benefit to employees, that is designed for what are almost exclusively one-off events, either the birth of a child or an adoption. That’s great, but what’s needed is a system that realizes parental responsibilities don’t end after the first 12 weeks, six months or two years. It’s always part of who someone is.

So too they are always a child themselves, with a responsibility to care for aging parents. And they are spouses, who sometimes need to prioritize that aspect of their life. Not all of these can be shunted to after 6:30pm, when the train finally drops you off or you finally get out of the car after your commute home.

It’s not just family, of course, that takes up part of someone’s attention. But companies don’t want you to have a life outside of work either during work, which is why many ban personal social media usage during office hours, or after, which is why companies increasingly create offices that double as rec centers, so you never have to leave and are always available.

Rigid adherence to a workday model that was standardized by agrarian economies before the advent of electric outdoor lighting seems nonsensical in the early part of the 21st century, when all of us have instant access to both personal and professional communications and productivity tools 24 hours a day. So too does the expectation that when someone walks in the front door of an office or logs on from a remote location that they stop being a parent, child, spouse, friend or significant other.

The paradigm needs to change from “We pay you to be in the office from 8am to 5pm five days a week” – at least for those jobs where such a model is relevant – to “We pay you to do the job; how and when you do it is largely irrelevant to us.” That will require companies to begin prioritizing employee quality of life far more than they currently do and realize the productivity advantages that come with remote work not only because it eliminates the commute but because not being under the Eye of Sauron for eight hours or more a day means they have more flexibility to do the work that actually comes in, not just appear busy for three out of those eight hours.