The state of labor in a shifting workplace

In 2021, COVID-19 catalyzed unparalleled disruptions and societal shifts in the world of work as the pandemic swept the globe.

ILR School experts continue to help the public, policymakers, labor, management and others understand how the crisis is impacting the future of work. This Labor Day, we’re highlighting some of the topics ILR experts addressed and their insights on how the world of work will look on Labor Day 2022.

Asking for a more flexible work schedule

With companies trying to figure out how frequently their workers must be in the office, many workers want flexibility – and it’s worth asking for, said Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior and the author of the upcoming book “You Have More Influence Than You Think.”

“Most likely, what’s in our head about all the discomfort and the awkwardness of how we are going to be judged is probably overblown,” she said in a recent article on CNN Business. “It will probably go better than you think. Regardless, you should get over the short-term discomfort of the conversation because the long-term benefits are pretty huge.”

Safeguarding essential workers’ health

While employees around the world continue to work from home, many essential workers are risking their lives to keep the health care system and other vital industries open for business.

“Without a clear enforceable mechanism to safeguard workers’ health at work, their lives will continue to be expendable,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute, wrote in the op-ed “On Labor Day Let’s Honor Workers by Protecting Their Lives” in 2020. “It is not enough for elected officials to honor the history of workers’ struggles for justice; they must also act to protect their lives.”

Since her article appeared, ILR’s Worker Institute has collected data focused on racial, gender and economic disparities during the pandemic, and produced the report “Seizing the Moment to Make our Care Systems more Equitable.”

Home, hybrid and hub workplaces

Companies considering bringing employees back into the workplace should base their decisions on input from multiple stakeholders, including operations, information technology, human resources and real estate, said Bradford Bell, the William J. Conaty Professor in Strategic Human Resources and director of the Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. These groups are likely to consider different factors when analyzing the optimal mix of hub, home and hybrid work arrangements, he said.

“For example, real estate may prefer a greater utilization of home and hybrid arrangements so as to reduce the real estate footprint and associated costs,” Bell wrote in “COVID-19 is Transforming Workplace Culture,” an article composed for ILR’s Work and the Coronavirus Hub. “However, HR and operations may recognize that some types of work are not a good fit for these arrangements and may push for greater utilization of hub arrangements. Ultimately, by weighing these different issues and viewpoints, companies will be better positioned to determine the optimal mix of hub, home and hybrid work arrangements.”

Building a disability inclusive workplace

For many people with invisible disabilities, the remote work era prompted by COVID-19 has changed their lives for the better.

“Many workers who might have previously been denied remote work alternatives, part- or full-time in the past, may now have a renewed opportunity to negotiate flex-place and flex-time working alternatives that make them far more productive, and lower stress and anxiety,” said Susanne Marie Bruyere, director of the ILR’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, in a recent article in The Guardian. “This is hopefully one positive outcome from the pandemic – that organizations realize that there are many ways to work, and among them is working from home [or] remotely.”

From unemployment to employee shortages

The U.S. needs and could have much better official labor market statistics, by including “our most underutilized national data asset: unemployment Insurance administrative records,” said Erica Groshen, ILR senior economics adviser who served as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner from 2013 to 2017.

The recent experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national reckoning on racial inequities call for upgrading our current suite of statistics, she wrote in a recent proposal to bolster labor market statistics.

“Making changes will be complicated,” she wrote, “but it is also doable, overdue and will help fuel a brighter economic future, locally and nationally.”

Higher incomes, more COVID-19 precautions

People making the most money made the most changes in behavior to combat COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic, according to Michèle Belot, professor of economics at the ILR School and the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Part of it could be because it is more difficult for more disadvantaged groups to ‘self-isolate;’ they tend to live in more dense housing, for example,” Belot said. She and her colleagues analyzed data on income, work arrangements and housing quality from six countries, including the U.S., collected in April 2020.

People with lower incomes also tend to have limited access to remote work and to the outdoors, which decreases their ability to social distance. Belot said the findings suggest policymakers must help lower-income populations take precautions, perhaps by addressing pandemic-related income and job losses.

Local workforce development

When the pandemic recedes and the local economy reopens, workforce leaders in Tompkins County should not settle for a return to business as usual, said Ian Greer, M.S. ’03, Ph.D. ’05, director of ILR’s Ithaca Co-Lab.

“Improving communication and coordination across the workforce development system through collective impact would improve its ability to innovate,” Greer wrote in the report “The New Possible: Innovative Workforce Development and Skills Maps for Tompkins County.” The report offers recommendations to the Tompkins County Workforce Development Board for reducing racial disparities and wage inequalities, removing barriers to work and promoting living-wage jobs.

Other recommendations include developing short-term courses to address specific skills needs; launching a Good Jobs Initiative that would provide more support for the lowest-paid and essential workers; expanding programs helping adult learners earn high school diplomas; facilitating growth in green jobs; and engaging Southern Tier neighbors in a regional approach.

Surge of labor activism

With the election of President Joe Biden, U.S. labor policy was poised for change. “The Future of Work: Labor in America,” an eCornell webinar series hosted by ILR Dean Alexander J. Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, probed shifts surrounding labor policy, worker activism and employer practices.

Unionization in Big Tech: Why Now?” discussed the Amazon warehouse workers’ organizing efforts in Bessemer, Alabama. Colvin was joined by Chewy Shaw, who helped lead more than 800 engineers and other workers at Google to form the Alphabet Workers Union in January, and Jessica García, assistant to the president and former deputy political director of the Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union, which helped Amazon workers organize in Bessemer.

In “One Year Later, What’s Ahead For Teachers,” Colvin was joined by one of the nation’s most influential labor leaders, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten ’80, to discuss how experiences brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic will shape the teaching profession.

In “The PRO Act: Upending the Labor Landscape,” former U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez joined Colvin to discuss the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act and its potential impact on workers and employers.

In the final webinar, Colvin was joined by Noam Scheiber of “The New York Times,” Eleanor Mueller of “POLITICO,” Paige Smith of “Bloomberg Law” and Lauren Kaori Gurley of Motherboard/VICE Media to discuss “Labor’s Big Moment? Insights from Journalists.”

Julie Greco is a communication specialist for the ILR School.

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