Decision to Stay Out of Workforce Is About Avoiding COVID-19, Not Work

Decision to Stay Out of Workforce Is About Avoiding COVID-19, Not Work
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In the run-up to Senate passage of the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, a number of senators expressed skepticism about the $600 per month unemployment supplement available to all workers filing through their state unemployment systems. The argument went that for workers in low-wage jobs, regular unemployment plus the supplement would be more attractive than work and would encourage people to stay home rather than take available jobs.

It turns out they may have been right about the unwillingness to return to work, but for the wrong reason. The Saturday New York Times ran a piece detailing how individuals are actually responding to the crisis and it appears that for some, the decision to stay out of the workforce isn’t about avoiding work but avoiding COVID-19:

Scott Yates, 42, who was indefinitely furloughed from his job as a head bartender in one of the busiest and largest hotels in Charleston, W.Va., said he and his wife had decided not to, even though it seemed that Walmart, Sam’s Club and Kroger were “hiring left and right.”

“It’s not worth a $13-an-hour job coming home and infecting my family — and then who else does that spiderweb to?” said Mr. Yates, who has two teenagers, and on Friday got his last paycheck, which was about half of what he normally makes with tips.

As Noah Rothman at Commentary and others have pointed out, stimulus is the wrong term to describe the COVID-19 relief bill. We aren’t suffering from an economic downturn but from a public health crisis that has frozen the economy. The emphasis on boosting demand through payments to workers is, therefore, a necessary but insufficient step toward encouraging work. What workers will want, increasingly, is improved safety from disease and an assurance that if they do get sick the health care system has the equipment (ventilators, respirators, N95 masks) and drug therapies available to treat them effectively. Until that happens, it will be difficult – and rightly so – to persuade workers to return to their jobs. This highlights the true failure of how the COVID-19 epidemic has been managed. Too few concrete steps, apart from social distancing, have been taken to help the public manage the risks of disease. If we want to get the economic soft start” going, here’s what’s most needed from the standpoint of improving and communicating the improvement of workplace safety:

  • A social distancing pause that helps “flatten the curve” and allows the hospitals, doctors and other health workers time to build up the capacity to treat the sick. As health system capacity expands, so will worker confidence that care will be available if and when needed;
  • Mass availability of personal protective equipment (masks, face shields, latex gloves, anti-bacterial cleaners) not just for health workers but for all workers to improve perceived and actual safety on the job. It will take time to reorganize and retool manufacturing to produce these goods but is absolutely essential before a broad restart of economic activity;
  • Widespread use of disinfection procedures that would demonstrate to workers and customers that workplaces and stores are as virus-free as possible a la South Korea. Pictures of workers in protective equipment spraying down streets, subway terminals, airports, and factories will improve public attitudes and perceptions that they aren’t taking their lives in their hands by venturing into public spaces.

Contrary to the perspective of Senators like Lindsay Graham and Ben Sasse, it isn’t that Americans don’t want to work. As recently as a month ago, Americans were working hard in a nearly full-employment economy. They are, as the President said, “raring to go.” But treating those who are being forced into the unemployment system as “lazy” and trying to drive them back to workplaces that feel, and often are, unsafe is counterproductive and, frankly, cruel. Far better to acknowledge the real and perceived threat of disease to workers and their families and prioritize the adoption of strategies that reduce anxiety and provide demonstrable protection from illness. After all, if members of Congress and the Senate are reluctant to show up for work to pass the COVID-19 bill, why would the ordinary Joe or Jane feel differently about their offices, factories, and stores?

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory.

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