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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Work in the Time of Covid-19

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Here's the strange thing. It never crossed my mind -- how could it have? -- but in work terms I've been testing out a Covid-19 world for the last decade and a half. I ran TomDispatch in those years, full time, from a small office in my own apartment in relative isolation. Yes, I could take the subway to see friends, swim at the Y, or visit my grandkids, but I was alone in that room and, however inessential my work and however unknown to myself, I was, it seems, preparing for a future pandemic. And yet, in some sense, little did all those years truly prepare me for the impact of this world in which the United States remains #1 (in coronavirus cases and in deaths -- USA! USA!), nor was I emotionally prepared for the president I recently heard Noam Chomsky label the most dangerous man in history because he's so intent on burning the human world to a crisp and so focused on himself that the deaths of others mean less than nothing to him.

And now, of course, I have it easy beyond compare. Imagine the lives of what are today called "essential" workers but were once janitors, whose job is now to endlessly sanitize a world from hell and who, for little more than minimum wage, are catching Covid-19 and dying across the country thanks to people who won't even wear face masks and to a president who has promoted the disease as if it were his political ally.

TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, a teacher who has been working by Zoom in these last months, has had similar thoughts and today suggests how this upside-down, diseased planet of ours and the diseased political world that goes with it may change the very shape of work in our lives for years to come. Tom

Why Does Essential Work Pay So Little...
And Cost So Much?
By Rebecca Gordon

In two weeks, my partner and I were supposed to leave San Francisco for Reno, Nevada, where we'd be spending the next three months focused on the 2020 presidential election. As we did in 2018, we'd be working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, only this time on the campaign to drive Donald Trump from office.

Now, however, we're not so sure we ought to go. According to information prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Nevada is among the states in the "red zone" when it comes to both confirmed cases of, and positive tests for, Covid-19. I'm 68. My partner's five years older, with a history of pneumonia. We're both active and fit (when I'm not tripping over curbs), but our ages make us more likely, if we catch the coronavirus, to get seriously ill or even die. That gives a person pause.

Then there's the fact that Joe Biden seems to have a double-digit lead over Trump nationally and at least an eight-point lead in Nevada, according to the latest polls. If things looked closer, I would cheerfully take some serious risks to dislodge that man in the White House. But does it make sense to do so if Biden is already likely to win there? Or, to put it in coronavirus-speak, would our work be essential to dumping Trump?

Essential Work?

This minor personal conundrum got me thinking about how the pandemic has exposed certain deep and unexamined assumptions about the nature and value of work in the United States.

In the ethics classes I teach undergraduates at a college here in San Francisco, we often talk about work. Ethics is, after all, about how we ought to live our lives -- and work, paid or unpaid, constitutes a big part of most of those lives. Inevitably, the conversation comes around to compensation: How much do people deserve for different kinds of work? Students tend to measure fair compensation on two scales. How many years of training and/or dollars of tuition did a worker have to invest to become "qualified" for the job? And how important is that worker's labor to the rest of society?

Even before the coronavirus hit, students would often settle on medical doctors as belonging at the top of either scale. Physicians' work is the most important, they'd argue, because they keep us alive. "Hmm..." I'd say. "How many of you went to the doctor today?" Usually not a hand would be raised. "How many of you ate something today?" All hands would go up, as students looked around the room at one another. "Maybe," I'd suggest, "a functioning society depends more on the farmworkers who plant and harvest food than on the doctors you normally might see for a checkup once a year. Not to mention the people who process and pack what we eat."

I'd also point out that the workers who pick or process our food are not really unskilled. Their work, like a surgeon's, depends on deft, quick hand movements, honed through years of practice.

Sometimes, in these discussions, I'd propose a different metric for compensation: maybe we should reserve the highest pay for people whose jobs are both essential and dangerous. Before the pandemic, that category would not have included many healthcare workers and certainly not most doctors. Even then, however, it would have encompassed farmworkers and people laboring in meat processing plants. As we've seen, in these months it is precisely such people -- often immigrants, documented or otherwise -- who have also borne some of the worst risks of virus exposure at work.

By the end of April, when it was already clear that meatpacking plants were major sites of Covid-19 infection, the president invoked the Defense Production Act to keep them open anyway. This not only meant that workers afraid to enter them could not file for unemployment payments, but that even if the owners of such dangerous workplaces wanted to shut them down, they were forbidden to do so. By mid-June, more than 24,000 meatpackers had tested positive for the virus. And just how much do these essential and deeply endangered workers earn? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $28,450 a year -- better than minimum wage, that is, but hardly living high on the hog (even when that's what they're handling).

You might think that farmworkers would be more protected from the virus than meatpackers, perhaps because they work outdoors. But as the New York Times has reported: "Fruit and vegetable pickers toil close to each other in fields, ride buses shoulder-to-shoulder, and sleep in cramped apartments or trailers with other laborers or several generations of their families."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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