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Opinion: COVID-19 has disrupted labor on a large scale, but there’s reason to be hopeful
090520202 Cubicle
Courtesy Kate Sade/Unsplash.com

Somehow, we have managed to persevere through the muck that is 2020 and have made our way to Labor Day, the annual celebration and recognition of the nation’s workforce, the women and men who provide the foundation upon which the nation’s economy rests. 

On Monday, millions of Americans will spend the day at home thanks to the national holiday that has been a part of the American experience since it was approved by Congress in 1894. 

And on Tuesday, many of those same American workers will still be at home, either as part of the nation’s reconfigured remote workforce forced into existence by COVID-19, or as one of the millions of unemployed who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves without a job due to the virus. 

It will, without doubt, be a Labor Day unlike any other. 

It is too soon to say with any hint of certainty what the long-term effects of the worldwide pandemic will be on jobs and employment, but it seems safe to suggest that the “old normal,” may never again be applicable. 

Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager

  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown

  • David George

  • Mandy Harris

  • Brent Hoffman

  • J.C. Smith

  • Tom Vivelo

The last six months have brought changes to the workforce landscape that would take years, or decades, to cycle through in more traditional times. Businesses have closed, jobs have disappeared, those who are employed may well be working remotely, or visiting a workplace on something other than a daily schedule. The apple cart of the American workplace, and that of much of the world, has definitely been overturned. 

As we enter the holiday weekend, there is little about the state of the nation’s economy that warrants celebration, but there are some signs that things may be beginning to improve. 

Numbers released Friday showed a national unemployment rate of around 8.4%, better than the nearly 10% figure most economic forecasters were expecting and cause for some cautiously optimistic talk that we may be moving toward better days. In August, the nation reported the addition of 1.8 million jobs. 

The job gains come as some 29 million Americans are still receiving unemployment checks, so there is still much that has to be done to return to the low level of unemployment which existed as we celebrated the coming of the current year. 

The fourth quarter level for unemployment at the end of 2019 was a very low 3.5%. A projection issued in July by the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that the process of rebuilding the job market will be a slow one, predicting that by the end of 2030 the unemployment rate should be 4.4%, still higher than that with which we finished the past year. 

As the job market slowly rebuilds, there seems no doubt that it will be dramatically changed from that we accepted as the norm before ever hearing of COVID-19. 

We have in the past six months learned how much can be done with employees working remotely and taking advantage of modern technologies, and that certainly will have an impact on employment in the future. Employees working away in cubicle farms may soon be as quaint a notion as preparing workplace memos on a typewriter. 

Of course, the great unknown is when we safely can build that model for sustained workplaces of the future. As we await a viable vaccine, we continue to preach the gospel of social distancing, limited personal interactions, masked employees and new standards of expectations for employees in many job fields, while other jobs by their very nature limit the viability of such changes. 

As we work our way out of the COVID-19 bog, you have to wonder if traditional retail stores will ever recover as a mainstay of American consumerism, or will we have become so accustomed to online shopping as to prefer it in the years to come. If so, will the new jobs associated with the logistics of purchasing and delivery belong not to a future human workforce, but rather to robotics and advanced technologies? 

Having been exposed to the potential of virtual interactions, will companies forsake the idea that face-to-face relationships are necessary for success? Will the travelling salesman racking up millions of air miles each year be a thing of the past? How long before we are again comfortable with hundreds of people pressed shoulder to shoulder in a boisterous night club, or thousands sitting side by side to cheer on the local sports team? What happens to those associated jobs? 

The only certainty at this point is that change is happening in the workplace now that will have long-term implications for both employers and employees. And as is often the case with sudden change, the transition to whatever the new economy holds is likely to be a painful one for many. 

That CBO forecast projects a national unemployment rate that will improve slowly but steadily over the next 10 years, as the nation’s job market rebuilds into something new and different. That, of course, is assuming there isn’t another unforeseen factor to hammer the economy that is hiding around a corner somewhere. Remember that as we were celebrating the dawning of 2020, most of us had never heard of the virus that has shattered economies around the world. Despite what some would have us believe, this is not just an American issue. 

So fire up the grill, gather the family as much as social distancing will allow, and pull down your mask long enough to hoist a favorite beverage in a toast to the American worker on Monday.  

If you have a job, be thankful. If not, be hopeful. As a nation we have rebounded time and again from economic crisis and world events that might cripple the financial engines of a lesser nation. The future job market may be different from that to which we are accustomed, but change is always a constant in the nation’s economy. 

It will be a Labor Day unlike any other. Enjoy it anyway. 

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