Bringhurst & Buening: COVID-19 is Evolving the American Workforce

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Sydney Stam

(Graphic by Sydney Stam | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Maggie Bringhurst and Sarah Buening

 

As 2022 rapidly approaches, many of us are still struggling to come to terms with the last two “Covid-era” years. Although completely disorienting, this part of our lives sparked a much-needed shift in priorities. Massive shutdowns gave us the free time necessary to care more about what matters and reevaluate the world around us. As a result, important social movements have gained traction. One of the most important areas of change has been in the labor movement.

Mass lockdowns changed the American workplace. As frontline workers experienced poor working conditions, people became aware of our flawed, exploitative work culture. Going forward into 2022, we must build upon this momentum to establish a better workforce.

Setting the Stage for a Labor Movement

The pandemic exposed the ugly truth about American workplaces. Frontline workers had a front-row seat to the inadequacies of the current system, often without raises or benefits, all while billionaires’ wealth increased by $2.1 trillion. In 2020, Amazon and Walmart’s profits increased by 56% while workers’ wages increased by only 7%. The companies could have quadrupled the extra COVID-19 compensation for workers and still made more profit than in 2019.

Nearly half of Walmart employees surveyed in May 2020 said they went to work sick out of the fear of losing their jobs. Walmart could have prevented at least 7,618 COVID-19 cases and saved 133 lives with a more empathetic paid sick time policy, according to an April 2021 report by United for Respect.

Inflation rose by 6.8% in 2021, the highest increase since 1982. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2009. This collective recognition of workplace exploitation didn’t fizzle out — many workers are pushing for changes.

Strikes, Unions and the Labor Shortage

“Workers have been withdrawing from the labor market in dissatisfaction with the jobs they currently have,” said Joseph McCartin, director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor to NPR. In September, a record of 4.4 million people quit their jobs. Meanwhile, we experienced a monthly income increase of 0.6%. To attract talented workers, companies have increased their wages. Still, some continue to misunderstand the role of wages within the economy. Two arguments are particularly uninformed — claiming that higher wages have caused inflation and that laziness caused the labor shortage.

To refute both, refer to our unchanged minimum wage. Despite it remaining untouched, inflation has steadily risen. Providing living wages serves to remove part of the excessive salaries given to corporate executives and billionaires. Obviously, higher wages aren’t our culprit. Neither is laziness, as unemployment has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Those quitting their jobs are simply moving to places that value their work, not relying on “government handouts.” Even if that were true, like Utah AFL-CIO President Jeff Worthington stated, “We’ve got a serious problem with the minimum wage,” if “someone can make more money on unemployment.”

But workers are reclaiming their rights in more ways than one. Several unions and strikes have brought renewed attention to this important cause. In September 2020, the Utah Education Association (UEA) secured better COVID-19 protections for teachers. After demanding that the state’s school board and governor make stronger protections, AFL-CIO Utah granted UEA a sanction to strike. According to Worthington, this made the legislature “step up and [give] them the protections that they were looking for.”

In October, Kellogg employees began striking the company’s problematic two-tier pay structure — which left about 30% of their workers with inadequate wages and benefits. After the union rejected Kellogg’s subpar offer, the company moved to permanently replace its striking employees. The debacle attracted national attention, with President Biden tweeting, “Permanently replacing striking workers is an existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods. I strongly support legislation that would ban that practice.”

Legislation in Action

Strikes such as Kellogg’s struggle to secure their demands under current law, where companies can permanently replace workers who protest unfair wages. But American workers understanding the value of their labor is a step in the right direction. New meaningful legislation is actively progressing through Congress.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is awaiting a decision from the Senate. Worthington described the PRO Act as “the single most powerful bill that unions could see passed.” The act would prohibit the practice of threatening strike workers with permanent replacement and would nullify Right-To-Work states such as Utah. Wages in Right-to-Work states average 3.2% less than other states because they prevent employees from bargaining for better wages and conditions.

Amazon workers in Alabama attempted to unionize in April, but the vote fell short. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in November that Amazon’s misconduct justified a new vote. Amazon’s interference included holding mandatory anti-union meetings for employees, which would be prohibited by the PRO Act.

The Build Back Better Act, passed in the House and awaiting a vote in the Senate, also has the potential to secure workers’ rights. It would add employer penalties for unfair labor practice violations, with fees up to $100,000. Other provisions of the Build Back Better Act include four weeks of paid medical leave for private-sector workers and incentives for businesses to pay workers with disabilities at least minimum wage.

A Brighter Future

Though we still have a long way to go, the events of 2021 indicate a positive shift towards prioritizing workers’ rights. By yielding the power that we have as the labor supply, we can demand the changes we need to see in the American workforce. The upcoming year could see an increased federal minimum wage, more humane benefits and much more. 2022 represents an opportunity for us to build off 2021’s accomplishments and secure better livelihoods for our people.

 

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@maggie_bring

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@sarah_buening