From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work
Date September 29, 2021 12:55 AM
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[The unemployment expansion showed us what work could be like if
it was freely chosen.] [[link removed]]

FOR MANY, THE PANDEMIC WAS A WAKEUP CALL ABOUT EXPLOITATIVE WORK  
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Marie Solis
September 24, 2021
In These Times - Labor
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_ The unemployment expansion showed us what work could be like if it
was freely chosen. _

A restaurant on the Jersey Shore boardwalk in Wildwood advertises for
workers May 28. Wildwood and many other beach communities largely
“canceled” summer 2020 festivities because of the Covid-19
pandemic and are now struggling to hire workers. , Spencer Platt /
Getty Images

 

By the time Covid-19 hit, Lily, 28, had been with her employer for
four years and in her part-time role for the past two. Not once in
those four years had her hourly wage moved above the state-required
minimum in her upstate New York town— currently, $12.50. Lily was
living with her parents to save money, and, because her job was in
ticketing sales for professional sports, it was competitive. She
hadn’t given much thought as to why she was paid so little; she was
just grateful to work in the industry she loved.

But when Lily was furloughed during the pandemic, she had a creeping
suspicion her labor had been undervalued. With professional sporting
events shut down, she took on remote work, first as a customer
service agent, then as a New York contact tracer — jobs that
paid nearly double what she had been making. ​“I was like,
​‘Oh, I’m worth more than minimum wage,’” Lily says. (Lily
is a pseudonym requested in fear of retribution from future
employers.) ​“I didn’t even realize how bummed I was. A plane
ticket was 25% of my net worth. I was worrying about putting gas in
my car to get to work.” 

These remote jobs were temporary, however, and when Lily started
interviewing for new positions, she was disappointed to find many
companies still only offering just about minimum wage. One job offered
an extra $2.50 after negotiation, but Lily turned it down — the
venue was also an extra hour away, and she still needed to
cover gas. 

Lily has mostly been relying on savings to get by after spending over
a month hunting for full-time work, hoping to find a job that allows
employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. Her goal is a $20
wage, but she worries whether that goal is realistic. She had a
​“big, revelatory moment” when she was earning more money, she
says: ​“I started eating healthier. I bought myself workout
clothes for the first time in years. You can have all the therapy
sessions in the world, but an influx of cash will really change the
way you feel about yourself.” 

A pernicious corporate narrative suggests that workers like
Lily — who ask for a decent wage and marginal flexibility from
an employer — are simply lazy. Many understaffed employers have
chalked up their problems to workers coasting on unemployment benefits
or stimulus checks. They complain about the federal unemployment
supplement and the states that have loosened the strings on
unemployment payments (such as requirements to continually search for
a job or to accept any offer).

But the 26 mostly red states that recently terminated the $300 weekly
unemployment supplement from the American Rescue Plan, purportedly to
incentivize workers, did not all see an immediate increase in job
searches. Many workers have valid reasons not to return to work
regardless of any ​“incentives” — one of the top reasons
being the exorbitant cost of child care
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As the pandemic closed daycares and schools and left parents in the
lurch, many two-parent households realized it would be cheaper for one
parent to stay home rather than work. Others are wary of exposure
to Covid-19.

To be fair, there’s evidence that for some people, pandemic relief
measures (or pandemic savings) have enabled joblessness by choice.
A June survey
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by the jobs website Indeed​.com found a fifth of job seekers were
not urgently searching for work because of their ​“financial
cushion.” A Morning Consult poll
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that same month found 13% of people receiving unemployment checks had
turned down job offers because of that short-term stability.

To deem this unemployed behavior ​“lazy,” however, one must be
predisposed to thinking work is some sort of moral imperative. Rarely
have workers had the freedom to be selective about where, when and how
much they work — to decide their own fates. In light of this
profound shift, perhaps it’s understandable that workers are
unwilling to settle.

There are more existential questions, too. Workers are re-evaluating
what role work should have in their lives, whether it’s important to
their sense of self, what they would do with their time otherwise.
Some may decide the jobs they left are what the late anthropologist
David Graeber termed ​“bullshit jobs
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work ​“that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious
that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” After such
a revelation, how could employers expect workers to return to
business as usual?

In her seminal 2011 book _The Problem With Work_, Kathi Weeks argues
that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in U.S.
culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity.
As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up
more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the
United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work
more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral
goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why
people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did,
they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity
and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul
Lafargue, would allow us to expand ​“our needs and desires beyond
their usual objects” — to understand how we want to spend our
finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an
important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers
reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they
are rejecting the idea of work as our ​“highest calling and moral
duty … as the necessary center of social life.” It also allows
workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving
their present circumstances.

The current historical moment isn’t without its precedents. A kind
of mass work refusal took place in the 1970s, when one in six
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union members went on strike, demanding more control over their
workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly
​“co-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work
intensification,” Weeks tells _In These Times_. Employers attempted
to make work ​“more participatory, more multi-skilled, more
team-based so that you could work even longer and harder.”

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today’s
workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking
about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they
want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

“So many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both
the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so
many jobs, and the question of quantity — for example, the long
hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and
the added time of commuting to most jobs,” Weeks says. ​“The
overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is
that people want more control over the working day and more time off
work to do with as they will.”

Without work taking up 40 or more hours each week, those who lost
their jobs to the pandemic have discovered other ways to fill their
time. Baking bread became such a popular quarantine hobby that it
verged on cliché, but many who tried it found it comforting and
deeply satisfying
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One might say the bakers were not alienated from their labor for
once — they got to eat the bread at the end. Others found
themselves with more energy to dedicate to activities like yoga,
gardening and roller skating.

“I … got really into cooking at home, because I really do love to
cook,” Caleb Orth, a 35-year-old in Chicago, told the _New York
Times_’ podcast _The Daily
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in August. ​“It was a hobby of mine before I lost my job,” he
said. But at the restaurant where he’d worked 80 hours a week,
he’d tired of making ​“somebody else’s food, the same thing
over and over and over. So during Covid, I’d be making meals at
home, and I got really into it.”

Many like Orth expressed amazement at how good it felt to be doing
things that were good for their well-being. Work suddenly seemed like
it might just be one element of life, not the center of it.

When the bar where Jessica McClanahan worked shut down in March 2020,
she set about creating a small art studio in her home in Kansas City,
Mo. She filled a corner of her living room with drawing and
book-binding supplies, acquired an antique desk from a friend and
assembled a small altar for cherished objects. McClanahan’s
boyfriend, who had worked with her at the bar, got laid off around the
same time; he fixed himself an art studio upstairs. While the two
collected unemployment — about $325 weekly, each, plus a $600
weekly federal supplement — they fell into a routine. They
would wake up each morning, have breakfast, then make art in their
respective spaces.

“Sometimes I would just mess around and not really do anything,”
says McClanahan, 37. ​“But I got to be like, ​‘Oh, do I want
to draw a picture? Yes. I’m gonna do that. Do I want to paint?
Make a book? Take photographs? I also taught myself how to
embroider. It was just a free-for-all for creativity, which
I haven’t had in a long time.” She made a leather-bound
sketchbook for her boyfriend for Christmas, a guestbook for his
parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and dozens of postcards to send to
friends across the country.

McClanahan, who has a master’s in library science and went to art
school, had long intended to spend more time on creative pursuits.
When she started her bartending career in 2005, she saw the service
industry as a reliable way to make rent and pay off student loans.
While her friends were making minimum wage at art galleries, she made
hundreds in tips in a single night. But it got harder to make time
for art, especially when she became a bar manager. McClanahan says
she felt glued to her phone even when she wasn’t on the clock,
troubleshooting crises at work, fielding texts from people who called
in sick and answering emails from vendors.

After trying out a few other jobs during the pandemic, McClanahan
decided to go back to bartending when restaurants reopened — but
quickly realized she couldn’t return to the lifestyle she had as
a manager. ​“I was really stressed all the time, and I kept
saying to myself over and over, ​‘I don’t know why I am
spending so much time worrying about something that isn’t even
mine,’” McClanahan says. The downtime while she was unemployed
gave her ​“freedom and peace of mind.”

“That really got the ball rolling for me in terms of thinking about
what I’m willing to tolerate at my job going forward,”
McClanahan adds.

Some employers are starting to see obvious solutions to their
so-called labor shortage: better conditions, signing bonuses, higher
wages, stronger benefits. The federal minimum wage is still not $15,
but a growing number of companies have begun offering it (including
giant corporations like Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Under
Armour). In a press release, Under Armour executive Stephanie
Pugliese called the move a ​“strategic decision … to be
a competitive employer.”

With the federal unemployment extension set to expire September 6, as
this issue went to press, the 13% of workers who have refused jobs
because of that stable income may no longer be able to simply opt out.
Regardless, the new skepticism of work as a de facto good will likely
stay. Our time, after all, is our lives.

Neither Lily nor McClanahan is presently receiving unemployment, and
they both now work in the service industry. Lily believes this job is
a temporary arrangement, while McClanahan plans to continue as
a bartender.

“After having five different jobs during the pandemic, I’ve come
back around to the idea that this is the kind of work I want to be
doing if I have to work at all,” McClanahan says. ​“But my
attitude toward devoting all of my lifeblood to work has
definitely changed.”

MARIE SOLIS has written for the _New York Times_, _The New Republic_
and _The Nation_.

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