Jul 21, 2020

Axios @Work

By Erica Pandey
Erica Pandey

Welcome back to @Work. Send your tips and random musings to erica@axios.com.

  • This week, I'd love to hear about your office's reopening plans. Has your company decided when employees will go back to the office? If so, what plans are in place to make the transition safe and seamless?

Today's newsletter is 1,450 words — a 5-minute read. First up...

1 big thing: The second wave of essential workers

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The pool of American workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic is getting a lot bigger.

The big picture: Just as grocery and delivery workers found themselves fighting a crisis they didn't sign up for back in March, teachers, hairstylists and temperature checkers are part of a new wave of workers who are now in harm's way as the pandemic rages on.

  • "This is a new group of essential workers," says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University. "They're people who never thought they’d be putting their life on the line by going to work."

By the numbers: There are already around 55 million Americans working front-line jobsdefined as jobs that require exposure to a large number of people who could potentially carry the virus. Now add to that millions of teachers, retail sales reps, nail techs and other professionals who have returned or will return to work in the coming weeks as their workplaces reopen.

"With most of the country reopening — whether it's safe or not — workers in so many occupations are put in the untenable position of having to choose between being able to sustain their families or putting their health at risk," says Sharon Block, executive director of the labor and work-life program at Harvard Law School.

Teachers are under tremendous pressure as some cities and states push forward on reopening schools.

  • 1 in 4 teachers — nearly 1.5 million people — are at a heightened risk of serious illness if infected by the coronavirus, per a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • Some educators are fighting back. "The largest teachers union in Florida sued Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday over his administration's push to fully reopen all public schools next month — even as the number of coronavirus cases in the state is spiking," NBC reports.

Beyond teachers, there are millions of service workers who have stayed home all summer. but will have to return to their jobs as states reopen and the extra $600 per week of unemployment benefits disappears.

  • "Even if they’re questioning the conditions, they effectively are being told it’s your health or your paycheck," Logan says.

Then there are new types of front-line jobs that have cropped up as a result of the pandemic.

  • Think of the temperature checkers stationed at the entrances of bars or the health care ambassadors outside Walmart stores to ask people to don masks.

The bottom line: This didn't have to happen.

  • Conditions could have been much safer for the second wave of Americans going back to work if we hadn't made so little progress on getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.

Go deeper:

2. The pros and cons of telecommuting

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In the inaugural edition of this newsletter, I dug into some unforeseen consequences — good and bad — of working from home during the pandemic.

  • We're now 10 weeks deeper into this grand remote work experiment, and some of these side effects — along with wholly new ones I didn't predict — are becoming more and more pronounced.

Why it matters: With more and more companies extending their work-from-home guidance through the end of the year or beyond, the consequences of telecommuting have turned from short-term nuisances to ongoing issues that firms will have to deal with.

The biggest crisis — one working parents were warning us of all along — has turned out to be the issue of child care.

  • With the question of whether schools and day care centers can reopen looming, parents are staring down several more weeks of juggling work and child care — a stressful, chaotic and unsustainable way of life for even the most privileged workers.
  • As I've written, the burden on working parents, especially working mothers, is also leading to new forms of workplace discrimination. Parents are being left behind as they struggle to keep up with the extra hours of unpaid labor that come with working from home.

Telecommuting is also exacerbating income inequality.

  • "Telework is part of inequality because it is enabling higher-skilled, higher-wage people to keep their jobs and continue to earn and possibly even get promotions or raises, while the rest of the country is on pause," says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution.
  • It's disproportionately women and people of color who work in sectors that cannot go remote.

But it's not all bad news.

  • Upwork recently surveyed hiring managers all over the country and found that 56% feel the transition to remote work has gone better than expected. Less than 10% feel it has gone worse.
  • A third said productivity increased when staff went remote, and 22% said it decreased. Productivity was a major concern for many employers heading into this period of telework.
  • Surveyed hiring managers also said they plan to hire more remote workers as part of their workforce than they did in 2019 because the experiment has largely worked. "This is all confirming that [the coronavirus] is actually going to change the nature of work going forward," Adam Ozimek, Upwork's chief economist, tells Axios.

Worth noting: Right now, remote work and the stress and pain of the pandemic are inextricably linked. Some of the benefits companies are noticing might be compounded when workers can telecommute in normal times.

3. Cities' hollowed-out middle

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Since the mid-20th century, Americans have been moving to big cities in search of economic opportunity — and cities have delivered.

  • But in the past few years, income inequality has been on the rise in many big metros. That's due to the fact that automation and other factors have decimated middle-skill, middle-wage jobs in manufacturing as well as clerical work — hollowing out the urban job market and turning upward mobility for those without college degrees into a myth.
  • That means the bulk of jobs in cities are either at the highest end of the spectrum (think tech or finance) or the lowest (such as in the service industry).
  • Now, new research from MIT's David Autor highlights an aspect of this story we didn't previously know: This hollowing out of jobs is disproportionately harming Black and Hispanic workers.

What he found: Autor observed employment trends for workers without college degrees in cities between 1980 and 2015:

  • White workers' employment share in middle-wage jobs fell around 5%, and their employment share in low-paying jobs increased around 5%.
  • Compare that with Black workers, who saw an approximately 12% drop in middle-wage employment and a close to 15% spike in low-wage employment.
  • For Hispanic workers, the middle-wage drop and low-wage increase were around 15% each.

The bottom line: The identity of cities as mobility machines is on the line — especially for workers of color.

  • While opportunities in big cities are disappearing, rents and the cost of living are increasingly unaffordable for everyone except the most privileged. As Autor puts it: "The cost of being in cities has risen, and the benefit of being there has fallen."
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's about to get a lot worse (Axios)

  • For months now, American workers, families and small businesses have been saying they can't keep up their socially distanced lives for much longer. We've now arrived at "much longer" — and the pandemic isn't going away anytime soon.

Companies are canceling coronavirus hazard pay (CNN Business)

  • Cases are spiking, and the pandemic is getting worse and more dangerous for front-line retail workers. But most firms have done away with boosted pay — known as hazard pay or hero pay — for employees.

Coronavirus threatens the luster of superstar cities (NYT)

  • Big, coastal metros like New York and San Francisco have long been economic powerhouses and cultural hubs. But the pandemic — which threatens bars, museums, theaters and dense living at large, all of which make cities special — could chip away at their dominance.

Young Americans are moving home (Quartz)

  • Here's a sign of the times: The share of Americans in their 20s living with parents or grandparents jumped to 35% in June. The pandemic has hit younger workers hard, with the number of employed 20– to 29–year–olds shrinking 11% between February and June.
5. 1 quarantine thing: New clothes for new bodies

Some Americans are putting on weight due to their new at-home lifestyles, and others are shedding pounds thanks to the extra time to work out.

Either way, as stores start to reopen, people are shopping for new clothes to fit their new waistlines, the AP's Anne D’Innocenzio reports.

What's happening: “Anecdotally, we’re seeing shoppers come back into stores unsure of their size. ... For most, it’s been a long time since they’ve tried on a pair of jeans, and they may be up or down a size,” Marc Rosen, president of Levi Strauss Americas, told AP.

Body-measuring apps are also noting an uptick in weight fluctuations.

  • For example, Perfitly, which has around 50,000 U.S. users, told AP it saw a 20% jump in people adjusting their measurements in April and May, compared with the same time period last year.

What to watch: Customers shopping for whole new wardrobes for their new bodies might be a blessing for cash-strapped retailers — but processing a lot of returned items as people try to figure out their sizes could be quite costly.

Erica Pandey

Thanks for reading!