Viewpoint: Covid-19 changes way we look at work and family

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Covid-19 has ripped away convention and the status quo, forcing innovation and adaption to how we do things – most profoundly, how people work, not to mention where they work and who they work for – as one in six small businesses shutter forever. Some 3.7 million jobs are expected never to return, and industries see more consolidation.

The need to “start over” has laid bare many issues, including racial and gender injustice as we as economic inequality, prompting elected leaders including Gov. Cuomo and Vice President Biden to embrace the theme, “Build Back Better.”

One of the issues that rocks the economic status quo to its core is the need to work from home because of lockdowns. It has prompted an exodus from New York City and San Francisco and renewed interest, indeed renewal (and higher home values) of Suburbia. The ramifications: real estate rental rates for apartments and office space have been reduced, while many landlords and property owners face economic ruin because renters are unable to pay the rent.

There is actual worry that 37 percent of jobs will permanently shift to work from home – causing office building landlords (Trump Organization!) and property owners to panic and employers to fear loss of control over their workers.

The workplace is being remade and is not likely to return to the old model. In the first place, there is no longer an excuse not to honor the pleas of women since the 1960s for more flexibility in their work to better accommodate child-bearing and child-rearing. One of the enforcements of the “glass ceiling” has been women’s inability to justify the expense (including Social Security!) of nannies who basically cost more than their take-home pay; the lack of available, affordable, quality child care; and also the strong desire to be at home in these all-important first two years of a child’s life. Many women, of course, did not have the option of staying home, but many who veered off the career track were permanently derailed. And this has kept many women from fulfilling their potential contribution to the workplace and society, as well as limited their accumulated capital and resources, even the amount of pension or Social Security they collect.

Some economists have actually expressed concern about the share of work-at-home. But what they are really concerned about is a shift in resources – away from commuting and business travel toward leisure travel; away from office parks and downtown restaurants and stores, and into suburban and rural village Main Streets. The time and expense not spent in commuting, office outfits and live-in nannies will go toward discretionary spending, college and retirement funds and home improvement (Home Depot and Lowes are going gangbusters). What we buy will change – outdoor and sports equipment, for example. It may well hurt mass transit, but help sales of automobiles (preferably electric vehicles), scooters and bicycles.

Work from home is part of a whole menu of changes in the power dynamic of the employer-employee relationship. Indeed, there is no reason why workplaces are not more accommodating for workers’ home-life needs (flex-work, job-sharing, work-from-home). In a word, President Trump would like workers to be more like indentured servants, unable to demand better conditions (hence the absolution from liability for employers to provide PPE and safe work conditions). And unions now account for only about one third of the workforce, in large part because of the anti-union efforts of Republicans (helped by a right-wing Supreme Court), because in olden days, unions were overwhelmingly Democratic (only the police unions, it seems, are Republican — wonder why that is).

It also goes to why Trump and the Republicans are so dogged about keeping health care tied to employment, why they fight raising the minimum wage and repealed Obama-era overtime rules, and why the Trump administration has turned OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), the National Labor Relations Board and the Labor Department from promoting the interests of workers to promoting employers. As for jobs creation, Trump is taking credit for Obama-Biden innovations, including apprenticeships and partnerships between corporations and schools, Opportunity Zones (Obama called it “Promise Zones”) and calling a partial restoration of jobs jobs “creation.”

On Labor Day, Biden showed how he would restore the progressive track for all workers and correct the systemic injustices that have kept women and minorities back:

Build worker power, raise wages and secure stronger benefits. Encourage, not only defend, union organizing and collective bargaining.
Raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, end tipped minimum wage and sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities.
Ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care by providing a public option and lowering costs for care and prescription drugs.
Provide universal paid sick days and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.
Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and address discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Ensure workers are safe from COVID-19 and other workplace hazards.
Ensure the future is “Made in America” by all of America’s workers.
Buy American. Invest $400 billion in buying American-made goods to build a clean energy future.
Innovate in America. Invest $300 billion in research and development (R&D) and breakthrough technologies – from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G.
Pursue a Pro-American worker tax and trade strategy.
Bring back critical supply chains to America so we aren’t dependent on China or any other country for the production of critical goods in a crisis.
Build a modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future with $2 trillion accelerated investment.
Rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure
Position the American auto industry to win the 21st century.
Generate clean, American-made electricity, creating jobs for scientists, construction workers, electricity generation workers, welders, engineers.
Retrofit buildings, weatherizing homes and build affordable housing.
Create jobs in climate-smart agriculture, resilience and conservation.
Create a 21st century care-giving and education workforce.
Advance racial equity across the American economy.

(Read Biden’s full plan to Build Back Better at joebiden.com/build-back-better)

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