KEEPING SOME HEALTHY STRESS ABOUT THE LABOR QUESTION DURING THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND

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featuring guest blogger EMILY MEROLA (ND ‘20)

Recent research about decision making has contributed to a better understanding about how people respond to times of crisis. Rather than experiencing continuous waves of panic, the findings suggest that people are more likely to become complacent and not take the risks of their situation seriously.

This concept has mapped directly onto some Americans’ experience with protests for racial justice this summer. Less than three months after the death of George Floyd, the polling website FiveThirtyEight published a series of figures about the influence of these events over time. The common thread? Public opinion and passion has waned. As the authors point out, this has occurred previously with other major events and issues as well (mass shootings, e.g.).

At a Higgins Labor Program Labor Cafe this past April, this phenomenon also surfaced as it related to the path forward out of the COVID-19 outbreak. Participants expressed a worry that our human tendency for complacency could lead us astray from actively thinking about and responding to the impact of this pandemic, especially when the news coverage slows and the risks don’t seem so imminent.

Of course, the other end of the spectrum — panic — isn’t well poised for doing these things either. Instead, we should aim to strike a balance with a “healthy” level of stress: the kind that causes us to care about an issue and to think about the outcomes around us as a call to action.

It should come as no surprise that when it comes to labor and Just Wage questions, this pandemic will be important for years after the direct threat of the illness subsides. Below are just two examples of labor issues inspired by the pandemic that will have long term implications:

  1. Many have noted that telecommuting will outlive the COVID-19 outbreak itself. This has associated benefits (e.g., greater flexibility afforded by working at home will be indispensable for some) as well as costs (e.g., a potential decline in worker well being because of isolation, or lesser salary and/or promotion potential). Not all jobs will be affected equally by these benefits and costs — some work, of course, must be done in person, and that work tends to skew towards lower income professions.
  2. Job loss has the potential to negatively impact workers and their families, even after they are employed again. For the individual, job loss could impact mental and physical health, future earnings, and future job quality. For the worker’s family, previous findings about job loss suggest outcomes ranging from lower infant birth weights to lower school performance for children and an increased likelihood of children repeating a grade. As with the telecommuting example above, the lasting effects of job loss will disproportionately impact different sections of the population, with lower-income workers and households hurt the most.

We have a responsibility to remain uncomfortable with the intertwined impacts of the health crisis, the related economic downturn, and the ongoing racial injustice confronting our nation moving forward. As the effects persist years into the future, we need to combat our typically all-too-short attention span for issues that matter. Maintaining some healthy stress about these issues would certainly be a productive step forward. How can we encourage others — especially those in leadership positions — to actively keep these matters on the table once the outside pressure subsides? By answering that question, we could even confront the plethora of issues facing workers that existed before the pandemic hit, moving toward an economy envisioned and articulated by Notre Damen’s Just Wage Framework.

Recent Notre Dame alum Emily Merola ('20) is a Research Associate at Notre Dame's Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), as well as an active member of the Higgins Labor Program's Just Wage Initiative, to which she contributed important research as an undergraduate.

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