Q&A: Honoring All Laborers During The COVID-19 Pandemic | WGLT

Q&A: Honoring All Laborers During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Sep 6, 2020

The work lives of many Americans have shifted dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are working from home while also juggling their children’s education and caring for loved ones. Others are seeing their job roles celebrated in an unprecedented way.

Too many still are finding themselves without work as the pandemic continues to devastate the U.S. economy.

The novel coronavirus has caused the cancellations of many Labor Day celebrations. But an Illinois State University labor relations expert argues the holiday is definitely still worth observing.

WGLT’s Dana Vollmer talked to Victor Devinatz, distinguished professor of management, about what makes this year's holiday feel different from years past.

Dana Vollmer: Lay the groundwork for why Labor Day is always important.

Victor Devinatz: Labor Day is always important because it's a holiday that celebrates the efforts of workers—all workers. Often times people, when they think of 'workers,' they only think of blue collar workers or industrial workers. But as our manufacturing base has declined, and there's been a shift to service workers and a movement to white collar workers, everybody's a worker—whether you work manually with your hands like the blue collar workers do, or white collar workers with your brain. It’s a holiday that celebrates the contributions of all workers.

DV: We've kind of heard about this new brand of employee during the COVID-19 pandemic, that being the emergence of the 'essential worker.'

VD: I think that this idea of 'essential worker' kind of changes depending on the context. Historically, essential workers have been considered workers that deal with public safety issues, like policemen and firefighters, etc. And specifically around the debate of whether all public-sector workers should have the right to strike, there has been the argument 'Well, we can't give all governmental workers the right to strike because certain workers are essential.

But I think the point in terms of essential workers is that all workers are essential. There wouldn't be a job, per se, if they weren't making a significant contribution to society. So, depending on what you need, and when you need it, any worker is essential and is an asset.

All labor has dignity—and that's not something that I came up with myself, that's something Martin Luther King said. Regardless of what you do, whether you're a highly-skilled worker, whether you're a semi-skilled worker, whether you're an unskilled worker, you're making contributions to society.

[Some people] are working every day during the pandemic. Some are even working longer shifts than they historically did—and not necessarily for higher wages, but for the same wages that they were getting and the same benefits. But I think it just shows how the whole economy is integrated in that everybody who has a job is making a contribution to the economy.

DV: One thing that I think we're always kind of bad about in the United States is work-life balance. But with so many people working from home and also, you know, dealing with child care, attempting to be a teacher and a parent in game time, potentially caring for loved ones, and also just dealing with the stress of being in the middle of a global pandemic—it's a lot. How should people think about the value of their work as they're working from home and work to establish that balance?

VD: That's an excellent question. Historically, it's been easier to separate work life from family life. For instance, if you work in a steel mill and then you come home from the steel mill, you can't produce steel in your backyard, or in your living room, right? So there was a clear separation between work life and family life, to some degree. But now, there are more demands. It's even harder in terms of working from home, because you have more pressure. You have to make sure your kids are online and following their lessons, monitoring them, helping them. And just with our technology, people can be contacted anytime of the day or night. You might also have to be caring for elderly parents now at home because of the pandemic. You're not seeing your colleagues at work like you used to, so in some sense, it could feel more isolating as well. You're working harder, and it's more isolating. And you might feel that you're constantly working. And you really don't have a period of time where you can get away from these child care responsibilities, elder care, or your responsibilities at work.

DV: Is there anything that workers can do to advocate for themselves with their employer...if they're feeling overwhelmed or not feeling safe coming into work—those kinds of things?

VD: Sometimes it's certainly hard to do that. A certain segment of the workforce, that certainly can be done through labor organizations, through the unions that represent them. But sometimes, as individuals, those are more difficult conversations to have. Some employers have some unrealistic expectations. Like if I send an email to you, it needs to be answered within a short period of time, or if I call you, you need to get back to me within a certain amount of time. People have many things going on. These conversations can be hard as individuals to raise with their managers and supervisors. And because of the relatively high level of unemployment, people who are employed might just feel fortunate to have a job at this time, that they're still getting a paycheck and that they can still pay for their food and rent. People who have jobs might feel also at this time, 'I'm lucky to have a job and I shouldn't really complain about some of these things,' even though they have legitimate things to complain about.

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