On a baffling presumption of goodwill toward ‘essential’ workers

It is fashionable now, in a lockdown meant to contain the spread of COVID-19 that requires most people to stay at home, to call the very workers we have treated as utterly expendable for decades “essential” workers, even “heroes.”[1] These are the people who stock grocery shelves, wipe down shopping carts, deliver food, drive taxis, and drive for ride share companies, indeed, anybody who continues to work in public during the lockdown. The term includes police, firefighters, and medical workers, but the lockdown has highlighted the social inequality that low-paid workers face, both because those who continue to work face inordinate risks from the pandemic and because those who are now laid off have no means to recover the lost income to pay bills which continue to accrue.[2]

Accordingly, the Brookings Institute has an article filled with lovely suggestions on how to improve the job market for low-wage workers[3] that I have to say would have been more credible decades ago.

It’s not that these aren’t still good ideas, although I can wonder how it is that people making starvation wages, often less than minimum wage,[4] can contribute to help pay for the “portable” benefits these authors seek to make more widely available for workers facing precarity[5] and although I can wonder—indeed as I did when I returned to school in the wake of the dot-com crash seeking anything but so-called “hard” skills—how the capitalist incentive to keep jobs in the United States only until cheaper labor can be found elsewhere, preferably in places with even less regulation and enforcement,[6] doesn’t undermine any effort to help workers acquire skills which employers claim to want[7] in relatively high-wage countries. It’s that the authors assume a goodwill on the part of companies and the government which I find impossible to believe actually exists.

Employers have expressed absolute delight with their ability to treat workers as utterly expendable to my face and neoliberal ideology understands “efficiency” principally as reduced labor costs—a legacy of 1970s “stagflation,” which I distinctly recall pundits blaming on wages.[8] The only monopolies against which neoliberals see antitrust action as warranted are labor unions.[9] By the 1980s, I was hearing a mantra that no one is irreplaceable; rhetorically, this precarity extended to the highest levels of management, but in practice, it much more often meant wage slaves would be laid off by executives acting heroically in the name of that “efficiency.”

Indeed, in the gig economy, neoliberal dystopia, job insecurity is touted as a feature, not a bug, as workers are typically paid peanuts. I’m just really not seeing goodwill toward workers, let alone toward expendable “essential” workers, here.

  1. [1]Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, “Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better,” Atlantic, April 18, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/i-work-grocery-store-dont-call-me-hero/610147/
  2. [2]Anne Applebaum, “The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff,” Atlantic, March 15, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-showed-america-wasnt-task/608023/; David Benfell, “Elite priorities: Why social, animal, and environmental justice remains essential with COVID-19,” Not Housebroken, April 26, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/26/elite-priorities-why-social-animal-and-environmental-justice-remains-essential-with-covid-19/; David Blanchflower, “Pandemic Economics: ‘Much Worse, Very Quickly,” New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/26/pandemic-economics-much-worse-very-quickly/; Zak Cheney-Rice, “Even Naked, America Cannot See Itself,” New York, April 27, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/04/coronavirus-inequality-america.html; Kim Hart, “The coronavirus economy will devastate those who can least afford it,” Axios, March 23, 2020, https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-economy-layoffs-children-families-bad-d588cc93-ff26-4031-8be8-5654cce05a15.html; Zoë Hu, “A New Age of Destructive Austerity After the Coronavirus,” New Republic, April 23, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157417/new-age-destructive-austerity-coronavirus; Sarah Jones, “Dear Rich People: Please Stop Hoarding Things,” New York, March 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/things-are-bad-and-rich-people-arent-helping.html; Hanna Kozlowska, “Coronavirus is revealing ugly truths about social structure in the US,” Quartz, March 14, 2020, https://qz.com/1818548/coronavirus-is-revealing-ugly-truths-about-social-structure-in-the-us/; Eric Levitz, “In the Age of the Coronavirus, Biden’s ‘Results’ Require Bernie’s ‘Revolution,’” New York, March 16, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/who-won-the-democratic-debate-between-biden-and-bernie-coronavirus.html; Tony Romm, “Uber drivers and other gig economy workers were promised unemployment benefits. It may be a long wait,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/02/uber-airbnb-lyft-unemployment-coronavirus/; Jenny Schuetz, “America’s inequitable housing system is completely unprepared for coronavirus,” Brookings, March 12, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/12/americas-inequitable-housing-system-is-completely-unprepared-for-coronavirus/; Luke Taylor, “When coronavirus is behind us, will you still think of restaurant and bar workers?” Vox, March 21, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/3/21/21188210/coronavirus-restaurant-bar-workers-economy-service-industry; Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran, and Vanessa Williams, “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate,” Washington Post, April 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/; Funda Ustek-Spilda et al., “The untenable luxury of self-isolation,” New Internationalist, March 18, 2020, https://newint.org/features/2020/03/18/untenable-luxury-self-isolation; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Denise Lu, and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury,” New York Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/03/us/coronavirus-stay-home-rich-poor.html
  3. [3]Martina Hund-Mejean and Marcela Escobari, “Our employment system has failed low-wage workers. How can we rebuild?” Brookings, April 28, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/28/our-employment-system-is-failing-low-wage-workers-how-do-we-make-it-more-resilient/
  4. [4]Alexa Noel, “Revised MIT Study Says Uber, Lyft Drivers Make About $8 or $10 per Hour,” Points Guy, March 8, 2018, https://thepointsguy.com/2018/03/revised-mit-study-says-uber-lyft-drivers-make-about-8-or-10-per-hour/; Richard V. Reeves, “Capitalism is failing. People want a job with a decent wage – why is that so hard?” Brookings, April 29, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/capitalism-is-failing-people-want-a-job-with-a-decent-wage-why-is-that-so-hard/; Lia Russell, “The Silicon Valley Economy Is Here. And It’s a Nightmare,” New Republic, January 16, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/156202/silicon-valley-economy-here-its-nightmare
  5. [5]Martina Hund-Mejean and Marcela Escobari, “Our employment system has failed low-wage workers. How can we rebuild?” Brookings, April 28, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/28/our-employment-system-is-failing-low-wage-workers-how-do-we-make-it-more-resilient/
  6. [6]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  7. [7]Martina Hund-Mejean and Marcela Escobari, “Our employment system has failed low-wage workers. How can we rebuild?” Brookings, April 28, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/28/our-employment-system-is-failing-low-wage-workers-how-do-we-make-it-more-resilient/
  8. [8]Gabriele Gratton, “Our economic model looks broken, but trying to fix it could be a disaster,” Conversation, June 7, 2019, https://theconversation.com/our-economic-model-looks-broken-but-trying-to-fix-it-could-be-a-disaster-118397
  9. [9]Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).

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