For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work
The unemployment expansion showed us what work could be like if it was freely chosen.
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. 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 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 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,” 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 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. 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 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.”
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Longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Featuring insights from a spectrum of experienced organizers, including Sharon Lungo, Carlos Saavedra, Ejeris Dixon, Barbara Ransby, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore and more.
"Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba have created a visionary and urgently needed guide to cultivating hope and action in treacherous times." —L.A. Kauffman
MARIE SOLIS has written for the New York Times, The New Republic and The Nation.