Saturday, February 29, 2020


"The Problem With Telling Sick Workers to Stay Home" is a journalistic whine on behalf of America's low-lage workers. Which is nothing new. And that's the problem; it's nothing new. People have lined up time and again to remind us of how unreasonable it is to tell people who are living paycheck to paycheck that they should miss a paycheck or two, rather than risk exposing other people to diseases that may severely sicken or even kill them. And now, with COVID-19 (COronaVirus Infectious Disease {20}19) likely to spread through the United States, the lament that the working poor must work at all costs is winding up again.

It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the point. I stopped in Whole Foods on Thursday, and I drew a cashier who was obviously ill. He blew his nose quite thoroughly before ringing me up, and it was clear from his voice that he was very congested. While driving home, I considered dropping an e-mail to Whole Foods, noting that they may want to evaluate whether they gave enough sick leave to their grocery workers. Because while I understand that doing so increases labor costs, having someone working in the store whose job more or less requires them to touch every single item that someone is purchasing is just asking to spread diseases when that person is sick.

In her piece, author Amanda Mull notes: "(NYU School of Global Public Health epidemiology professor Robyn) Gershon emphasizes that having what feels like a head cold or mild flu—which COVID-19 will feel like to most healthy people—often isn’t considered a good reason to miss a shift by those who hold these workers’ livelihood in their hands." But the thing that struck me when I was driving home was that "those who hold these workers' livelihood in their hands" is, ultimately, the public.

When people complain that corporate America or the federal government aren't doing enough to protect public health by offering, or forcing offers of, generous time-off and sick-leave policies, beneath that lies an unspoken criticism of the public as a whole. It's a common joke around here, even with all of the Microsoft Millionaires and other people who are living large from technology company salaries, that the name of the grocer should be "Whole Paycheck." Laying the blame on corporate greed or government inaction/corruption camouflages the fact that the American public is highly price-sensitive. When it comes down to it, most people would rather pay $5.00 for something that comes with few to no worker protections than $6.00 for the same thing but allows the worker to work less. Because for most of us, our standard of living, our ability to squeeze more leisure and a batter life out of the amount of work that we do, comes at the direct expense of someone else having to work harder to have less.

All up and down the chain, there is a drive to get "the most bang for the buck." And I think that advocates for the poor and low-wage earners recognize this. And so there is a habit of finding people to blame who it is perceived can easily pay the cost. But that cost will always come back to the people who have no choice but to pay it. And changing the set of people who have no choice is going to have to come from the public, at some point in time. It's all well and good to complain that government isn't doing enough, but, at least in the United States, government is answerable to the public as a whole; at least those members of the public who are active and engaged.

In the conclusion of her article, Ms. Mull claims that the United States is asking low wage workers to shoulder the burdens of preventing a COVID-19 epidemic in the nation, yet refusing to give them any way of bearing those costs. But there's no request of the United States, or even the readers of the article to a) do more to bear those costs themselves or b) advocate for a distribution of resources that better allows the people we ask to do things to accomplish those things and then compensates them appropriately for their efforts.

And so we're let off the hook again. To be sure, I don't know what the readership demographics of The Atlantic look like. I would guess somewhat slightly Left of center and well-educated. From their, I suspect that I could guess at least a moderate level of affluence. This should be a group of people who can take at least some security in their own position; enough so that they can afford some limited sharing. So why not request it? Why not call upon each of us to be the change we want in our own lives, if not the world?

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