In recent weeks, social media pages have been flooded with images and videos of airplane passengers clapping, celebrating the end of required masks during travel. While some might be claiming that the pandemic is now over, vulnerable workers might disagree, and they certainly won’t forget what happened in their workplaces over the past two years.
Both employer and governmental responses to this global crisis revealed a continued valuation of profits over people. They were reluctant to make the necessary changes both in working conditions and in public policies to ensure workers’ lives are protected.
The presumption that workers are disposable was revealed over and over: employers resisted altering the organization of the work to increase safety and protect workers; access to private or state-sponsored sick or caregiving leave was limited or nonexistent; health benefits, childcare, and continuous sources of financial support were available only to more privileged workers.
It is not surprising that there have been new wins for labor on the heels of the pandemic, with successful union campaigns coming out of some of the most notoriously anti-union workplaces. We have also seen many workers refuse to continue or return to working in low-quality jobs. Contrary to the mainstream narrative that pins the ‘Great Resignation’ on a faltering work ethic or overgenerous unemployment benefits, we know that this is connected to job quality and cannot be understood without considering how precarity either expanded or was revealed for many during the pandemic.
While much of the conversation around job quality and, indeed, precarity, emphasizes hours, pay, and benefits, our recently published paper shows how emotions and bodily integrity make up additional important features of precarity, especially in the context of a global pandemic. We argue that in already precarious workplaces, workers experienced expanded dimensions of precarity: 1) moments of what we call precarious stability, 2) increased risks to their bodily integrity, and 3) heightened experiences of fear and anxiety combined with intensified demands on service workers’ emotional labor.
A critical theme in our data was that essential workers who remained employed during the pandemic came to experience precarious stability– short-term scheduling and hours stability they had not previously experienced, and which they were not guaranteed in the future. We found that the intense rush of work at service sector establishments during the early months of the pandemic resulted in a surplus of available hours as managers told workers to “take unlimited overtime while you can because these hours won’t be around forever,” as one union representative shared.
While these workers were able to experience an increase in hours and scheduling stability temporarily, the future of their work hours and schedules was unpredictable and out of their control, contingent on employer decisions about staffing levels and available paid time off (PTO). We suggest that these moments of heightened stability show that precarity and scheduling stability are not opposites. Instead, in its temporary form, as we analyze in this study, stability can be a characteristic of precarious jobs, particularly observable under COVID-19, because of the lack of guarantee that full-time hours will persist.
Essential workers who remained employed also reported increased variability and unpredictability regarding their work tasks and duties, adding another precarious element to their newfound but short-term stability. High unpredictability regarding daily tasks was especially salient in the early stages of the pandemic, as local, state, and federal government agencies struggled to establish guidelines. Employers found themselves having to quickly respond to changing requirements, leaving managers and workers alike with little notice of work responsibilities.
Risks to Bodily Integrity
One substantial workplace hazard that workers faced involved their physical safety.
Overall, there was very slow implementation of COVID protections for workers: many workers reported that there were no safety protocols initially, and the slow response from businesses put workers at increased risk for bodily harm. Most concerning, of course, was the possibility of contracting a potentially deadly illness. Further, implementation was highly inconsistent across job sectors, companies, and within the same company across different stores. Most workers were uncertain about new sick time policies, which posed several new layers of precarity. This uncertainty compelled workers to continue working despite heightened bodily risks.
Many retail workers told us that it was challenging to compel customers to comply with COVID guidelines. One unionized grocery store worker even reported seeing customers directly cough toward people wearing masks. Workers explicitly discussed heightened risks to their bodily integrity as they continued to work during a deadly pandemic, which they tied to their precarious working conditions.
Workers not only faced increased risks to their bodily integrity, but new emotional hazards in the workplace, which appeared in two different and interrelated ways.
First, we found that fear and anxiety became part of everyday work conditions, intertwining to create an ‘emotional climate’ that significantly altered workers’ experiences while at work. While the pandemic certainly frames these emotions, our research shows how these feelings were primarily grounded in the decisions made by both employers and government officials that profoundly shaped concrete working conditions.
Second, and partially because fear and anxiety became ‘background conditions,’ workers had to engage in extra emotional management to ensure proper customer service, to put aside these intense negative emotions and attend to customers equally distressed. Employed in jobs with little authority, workers’ ability to successfully manage customers’ emotional reactions to get the job done was challenging. This amplified emotional labor constituted an additional workload, causing considerable exhaustion at the end of the day, increasing workers’ burnout.
While today many of the limited emergency regulations that were in place in April 2020 have been lifted (companies have ended hazard pay, the government has terminated the obligation to pay workers while they are out sick or quarantined, and some states have lifted safety policies like mandatory masks), workers are still getting sick, and in many cases still struggling with long term health and financial impacts of the pandemic, as well face ongoing precarity in their jobs.
As workers continue to voice today, those in our study spoke of the need to raise the minimum wage, expand paid leave, extend the hazard pay period. Importantly, all workers emphasized the need for more accessible, affordable, and universal healthcare. Ultimately, our study points to the dangers of piecemeal solutions to systemic employment issues and contextualizes current struggles as both a result of conditions that predated the pandemic, as well as the new dimensions of precarity brought about by this crisis.
Lola Loustaunau is a Doctoral candidate in Sociology at University of Oregon and Wayne Morse Fellow. Her research focuses on job quality, precarity, migrant workers, and collective organizing.
Larissa Petrucci PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the intersections of precarity and low wage work, gender and racial equity, and job quality.
Ellen Scott is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on low-wage work and care work. Her research has contributed directly to several successful legislative initiatives benefiting low-wage workers in Oregon, including increased minimum wage, paid sick leave, and Oregon’s unique law to address unfair scheduling practices.
Image: Lola Loustaunau
To read more, see: Lola Loustaunau, Lena Stepick, Ellen Scott, Larissa Petrucci, and Miriam Henifin. “No Choice but to be Essential: Expanding Dimensions of Precarity during COVID-19” in Sociological Perspectives 2021.