Imagine that you’re an experienced engineer. You have the skills to design parts and products on a home laptop — safe and secure at your dining room table, isolated from the threat of COVID-19.
But, no. Your company insisted that you appeared in the factory dozens of times over the last two months. Without offering a thread of safety gear or making any effort to keep assembly line workers at a safe distance — from each other or from you.
No testing. No tracing. No nothing.
What’s your reaction?
A) Lucky me, I’m grateful I still have a job.
B) My boss is trying to murder me.
C) One day, I swear I’ll seek out a sensible employer who won’t gamble with my life.
In a time of mass layoffs, answers may incorporate both A and B, but they definitely will include C.
Employers be warned: Needlessly imperil the lives of your workers now and you’ll jeopardize your reputation in the labor market for years to come. The skilled, the experienced, the mobile will demand better treatment — or go elsewhere.
Long after the plague and layoffs have passed, skilled workers will be turning the tables in job interviews. It will be the prospective employer who’s under uncomfortable scrutiny.
“What did you do to protect your workers?”
“Were employees who preferred to work at home forced to crowd back into the office, factory or warehouse?”
“Did you extend sick leave, personal time or health insurance benefits to meet the challenge?”
In short, the theme of job interviews likely will go something like this: “I know what you expect of me. Here’s what I expect of you.”
While some celebrate work as a way to find meaning, many describe their jobs as, “It’s a living.” Facing death isn’t part of the deal.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House public health adviser, said as much in U.S. Senate testimony.
“So I would think when you’re calling upon people to perform essential services, you really have almost a moral responsibility to make sure they’re well taken care of and well-protected,” Fauci said. “And again, that’s not an official proclamation. That’s just me speaking as a physician and as a human being.”
Racing to reopen businesses, without effective safeguards for workers and customers, invites needless suffering and death, Fauci and other medical experts told senators.
They might have added another point: Hastily calling back workers could wreck the reputation employers have spent years and money to build and protect.
How will nursing homes with multiple fatalities overcome their new image as death camps? Not only for the elderly residents but for the workers who tend to them?
Whether employed by a florist or a foundry, if workers don’t trust the managers to keep them safe, will they show up? We’re about to find out soon. But we’re also about to learn longer-term lessons about loyalty between firms and their workers.
To live up to rhetoric about the “company family,” managers must treat workers with the care that they’d show their flesh-and-blood. Treat people as factors of production — no more important than machinery or office space — and the consequences could be profound.
With 33 million Americans filing unemployment claims in recent months, the power to exploit the workers still in jobs may tempt many companies. But the boss should remember that today’s labor glut one day will be replaced by a labor shortage, as 77 million baby boomers retire and take their experience and skills with them.
Big manufacturers like Tesla may open its California car assembly plant after a month of shutdown, but CEO Elon Musk has defied a county stay-at-home order and risks arrest. Musk has ensured that he’ll be remembered for protecting his personal fortune over shielding his workers from harm.
“To say that [people] cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist,” Musk said in a call to securities analysts. “This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom.”
Freedom, that is, to lose their unemployment insurance checks if they fail to heed the Tesla callback — the despotic order from that great defender of democracy, Elon Musk.
If the financially challenged upstart Tesla survives the pandemic, who will want to work there a year from now, five years from now? A boss like that inspires contempt, not devotion.
Other employers are showing more compassion.
Countertop maker Cambria has spent six figures on thermal imaging equipment meant to catch workers with high body temperatures — a sign of fever — before they enter factories in Le Sueur and Belle Plaine.
“Screening and socially distancing workers, mask policies and cleaning protocols are all part of daily procedures for companies such as Boston Scientific, Ecolab, Honeywell and Polaris,” the Star Tribune reported.
Will the steps guarantee protection from the virus? Probably not. But they’re cultivating goodwill. They’re sending an important message to workers. “We’re trying. You matter.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S. Senate are working on a pandemic bill that should make workers sick — in more ways than one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pressing for a new law to bar legal actions by workers called into offices and factories where cavalier employers ignore health and safety.
Congress must reject that cynical maneuver and imperiled workers should pursue their rights. Eager to snare the attention of careless, pitiless employers? Sue them.
Mike Meyers, a retired Star Tribune business reporter, is a writer in Minneapolis.