Labor Day Look Ahead: Considerations for the Securing the New Workplace

Contributed by Cindi Sternfeld.

Each year, our nation honors the Labor Movement in the United States on Labor Day. The pandemic has put a new spin on our Labor Day tradition as many are still home, waiting for jobs and schools to be able to open safely. This year, in addition to looking back and recognizing hard won labor rights, perhaps the way we can honor the Labor Movement of the 20th Century is to look ahead and see how we can prepare, serve and protect our 21st century American workforce today, tomorrow and for the long term.  

In some ways, our culture has been preparing for these changes for decades. Many of us still remember when the first computers arrived at our workplaces. Big and clunky, computers offered an easier way to organize, manage and share our information. Fax machines let us send documents around the world in seconds and pagers enabled bosses to reach us even when we were not at our desks. Email and online messaging let us communicate with colleagues faster and more efficiently. The workplace transformation began carrying over into our personal lives. Technology, like a slowly rising tide, brought us new ways to do our old tasks at work and at home.   

Covid turned that slowly rising tide of technology into a tsunami. The ease of any person’s transition to this brave new digital world is in some part determined by access to fairly new computers, a workspace, privacy and high speed internet.  In addition, how effectively people were able to adapt to working and living in a digital world is somewhat dependent on our ability to meet the personal social and emotional needs that emerged as we sheltered in place for quarantine.  

If we had our basic technology needs met, in short order we learned Zoom and other new communication and record keeping platforms. In just a few weeks, many of us were working from home as our kids were learning from home.  We had doctor appointments, did our taxes, purchased groceries, planned virtual happy hours and even went on blind dates – all from the comfort of our homes.  

Here’s the thing: the workforce was impacted in different ways by different variables, and while a supervisor can anticipate certain physical or resource needs, they never needed to understand what kind of technology and skills were available at home and away from the workplace. 

The impact of Covid-19 on the workforce cannot be understated. While nearly every workplace in the world had to change aspects of how work was accomplished, what is probably most remarkable is how quickly the changes were implemented.  After a brief work pause, professionals from all disciplines quickly changed to online, digital platforms. 

As we enter the seventh month of the Covid-19 pandemic we are just beginning to assess the long and short term impacts it has had, and will continue to have on our country and our world. We marshalled individual and collective resources to learn new technologies, new ways of connecting and supporting each other. We quickly discovered that people who had less before the pandemic suffered much greater losses than people who had more,  and we can only imagine what those losses will look like in months and years from now. It is important to note here that just as the health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have disproportionately affected Black, brown and indigenous people, these communities have also sustained the greatest losses in employment.  

There’s profound irony in that even as we celebrate the rich history of our country’s Labor Movement, we are bearing witness to record unemployment. Further, many of the jobs that fueled our economy and provided opportunities to build new American dreams – many of those jobs are not coming back and others will never be the same again.  The reasons for these new realities are varied.  

There are basic changes and challenges that the pandemic has obviated, including  re-configured work places that enable people to keep working and still maintain safe social distance. For some jobs, this means enabling employees with longer-term work from home technology, skills and support. But, for others, a different solution is necessary.

Those who can only work at brick and mortar workspaces require employer-provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and the ability to maintain safe, social distance. Their physical workspace must have better and more frequent cleaning protocols, temperature screenings and testing/tracing programs. These changes also require employers to reconsider the layout of their physical locations, additional workshifts, and new ways of meeting and supervising work. All of this adds training and workplace policy changes to the list of changes to be made, plus the cost of implementing and sustaining necessary changes.  

Working from home requires equipment and high-speed, broadband internet.  It requires a space to work. For some jobs, that space must also afford quiet, uninterrupted time.  If we carry this to the logical conclusion, we have to wonder, how can a parent work and also support their child’s at-home learning? Is there sufficient bandwidth to have two or more people video-streaming at the same time? Does the home have work spaces for everyone to do the work? Can a parent help their child attend school and do their job at the same time?  If they cannot, will the employer allow the worker to do their work after the kids go to bed?  All of these are new questions that Covid has required us to answer.  

Some jobs, such as those in the entertainment and hospitality industries have been put on pause and when they return, will likely look very different and will be newly imagined with increased reliance on digital platforms in order to reduce both health risk to employees and consumers and liability for businesses.  

Looking forward, how will the workforce itself change? What new skills and tools will be needed to reopen the economy and get people back to work? What policy positions and budget changes will businesses and governments have to enact?  

According to Andrew Stettner of the Century Foundation and Katie Spiker of the National Skills Coalition, “Companies that adopt new technology can empower more social distancing necessary to fight the spread of Covid-19 and will gain a competitive advantage that will be the foundation of how our workplaces change moving forward.”  Struggling companies will have to make investments in order to be attractive to workers who bring high level or specialized skills . 

The shift of people moving from office spaces to home workspaces, will have a long term impact on real estate, building maintenance, retail and restaurant business, and all of the businesses that have evolved to support businesses that employ Americans. As these jobs have evaporated, as people have been sent home and the support needed to get them back into the workforce has been largely non-existent.  

Workers will need retraining to become skillful in the use of new technologies to keep the jobs they’ve had and to find new work when they’ve become unemployed. Training costs money.  People who have lost jobs still have bills to pay and families to feed. The country will need a comprehensive re-employment plan and social safety net programs and policies that will support workers in transition.   

The National Skills Coalition has outlined policy recommendations in their publication, “Digital Skills for An Equitable Recovery; Policy recommendations to address the digital skill needs of workers most vulnerable to displacement” by Molly Bashay (July, 2020)  These recommendations include building and funding systems that will assess and improve digital literacy, helping people to up-skill and to re-skill to prepare for increased workplace and consumer reliance on digital platforms.  The goal of digital upskilling will require universal access to broadband internet and access to personal devices with updated software.   

Specific policy recommendations from the National Skills Coalition include:

  • Congress should invest in partnerships between industry and education providers to inform education providers of employer needs, scale employer-based upskilling best practices, and better address worker and employer labor market needs at the local and regional level
  • Congress should expand investment in the Higher Education Act and in Perkins V, including additional technical assistance as necessary, to expand access to blended learning opportunities and proven digital skills training models in community college settings. 
  • State policy makers should create or revise state strategic plans to include digital literacy goals that align with their governor’s post secondary credentialing campaign or other educational attainment taskforce strategies and metrics.

As individuals, employers and activists prepare to emerge from the pandemic we will need to rethink both what we do and how we will do it.  In order to be ready for this moment, we must set our actions toward learning about the current needs and toward advocacy to put into place the resources that will support the economic recovery that the country needs. 


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