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The Remotes. The Essentials. The Unpaid. The Forgotten: Divided, but intertwined

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | April 28, 2020
Remote workers like coders are dependent on essential workers, like medical personnel (Images from Wikimedia Commons)

Remote workers like coders are dependent on essential workers like medical personnel, and vice versa. (Images from Wikimedia Commons)

The pandemic is putting America’s deepening class divide into stark relief. Four classes are emerging.

The Remotes: These are professional, managerial and technical workers – an estimated 35% of the workforce – who are putting in long hours at their laptops, Zooming into conferences, scanning electronic documents and collecting about the same pay as before the crisis. Many are bored or anxious, but they’re well off compared with the three other classes.

The Essentials: They make up about 30% of the workforce, including nurses, home care and child care workers, farm workers, food processors, truck drivers, warehouse and transit workers, drug store employees, sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters and the military.

Too many Essentials lack adequate protective gear, paid sick leave, health insurance and child care (which is especially important now that schools are shuttered). They also deserve hazard pay.
Their vulnerability is generating a wave of worker activism at businesses such as Instacart, Amazon, Walmart and Whole Foods. Mass transit workers are organizing work stoppages.

Donald Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has the legal authority to require private employers to provide essential workers with protective gear. Don’t hold your breath.

The Unpaid: They’re an even larger group than the unemployed – whose ranks could soon reach 25%, the same as in the Great Depression. Some of the unpaid are furloughed or have used up their paid leave. So far in this crisis, 43% of adults report that they or someone in their household has lost jobs or pay, according to the Pew Research Center. An estimated 9.2 million have lost their employer-provided health insurance.

Many of these jobs had been in personal services that can’t be done remotely, such as retail, restaurant and hospitality work. But as consumers rein in spending, layoffs are spreading to news organizations, tech companies and consumer-goods manufacturers.

The unpaid most need cash to feed their families and pay the rent. Fewer than half say they have enough emergency funds to cover three months of expenses, according to a survey conducted this month by Pew.

So far, government has failed them, too. Checks mailed out by the Treasury are a pittance. Extra benefits could help, but unemployment offices are so overwhelmed with claims that they can’t get money out the door. Loans to small businesses have gone largely to big, well-connected businesses, with banks collecting fat fees.

Last week, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he opposed further federal aid to state and local governments, suggesting states declare bankruptcy instead. That means even less money for unemployment insurance, Medicaid and everything else the unpaid need.

The resulting desperation is fueling demands to “reopen the economy” long before it’s safe. If it comes down to a choice between risking one’s health and putting food on the table, many will take the latter.

The Forgotten: This group includes everyone for whom social distancing is nearly impossible because they’re packed tightly into places most Americans don’t see – prisons, jails for undocumented immigrants, camps for migrant farmworkers, Native American reservations, homeless shelters and nursing homes. While much of New York City is sheltering at home, for example, more than 17,000 men and women, many already in poor health, are sleeping in roughly 100 shelters for single adults.

All such places are becoming hotspots for the virus. These people need safe spaces with proper medical care, adequate social distancing, testing for the virus and isolation of those who have contracted it. Few are getting any of this.

Not surprisingly, the Essentials, the Unpaid and the Forgotten are disproportionately poor, black and Latino. And they are disproportionately becoming infected.

An Associated Press breakdown of available state and local data showed that close to 33% of coronavirus deaths so far are African American, despite representing only 14% of the total population in areas surveyed. The Navajo Nation already has lost more to coronavirus than have 13 states. Four of the 10 largest known sources of infection in the United States have been correctional facilities.

These three groups aren’t getting what they need to survive this crisis because they don’t have lobbyists and political action committees to do their bidding in Washington or state capitals.

The Remotes among us should be concerned, and not just because of the unfairness of the COVID-19 class divide. If the Essentials aren’t sufficiently protected, the Unpaid are forced back to work earlier than is safe and the Forgotten remain forgotten, no one can be secure. COVID-19 will continue to spread sickness and death for months, if not years to come.

Cross-posted from Newsweek

Comments to “The Remotes. The Essentials. The Unpaid. The Forgotten: Divided, but intertwined

  1. I am a single mother that my pay has been cut long before covid-19 just bc of job title. I work 6-7 hours straight five days a week. When covid-19 hit my over time got cut all together. That was what was putting food on table and gas in my car. Now more than ever I am cutting back on everything. I hear and read all of this news about 600 for unemployment a week and that is more than I make a week by far. I have worked since day one of covid-19 paying my bills be scrapping by to keep food on table. Where is our help! The ones that never gotten a day off since this whole ordeal has started. Where is our hazard pay , where is our 600 dollars a week for staying on the job . No we are just pushed aside once things were lifted and some what going back to normal. First ones forgotten but always the first ones called apon to get things done. We stick our necks out for everyone but we are the ones left picking up our bills being behind or looking at our kids telling them that they need to eat a little less so we can eat tomorrow. We are the ones selling our own things to have enough money for gas, toiletries, laundry soap so we can wash our clothes to go back to work for the ones sitting in their houses eating watching TV having family time buying things the need/ want with ease. Don’t worry the forgotten ones will go back to work.

  2. Those of us who are required to pay taxes every year have not given our banking info to IRS. That means we must wait weeks for any stimulus funds. I have already started cutting back with my TV the first thing to go. Today I was only able to buy 1 week of groceries. i live in a very s.all town and their poli y is to provide help only once a year. so Monday I will have the pleasure of going without water and electricity and without gas for cooking and heating. It seems that the focus is on the large co.u ities. I nedd HELP. Doesn’t small
    areas count. At this point suicide is an option since i dont have family. Ive outlived my 65 years of usefulness and cant stand the idea of tying to survive without essentials.

    • I’m sorry to hear about all the struggles you’re having, Debra. The fact that you are considering suicide is concerning. Please don’t give up on life. You are worthwhile and valuable to God and to others. I’m praying for you, and I really hope things have improved for you as May has gone on.

  3. How about the rich??? This is just the subdivision of the middle and working class Where is Amazon, zoom and auto insurance companies. Of course the remote is so far the luckiest one in this article.

  4. What must be emphasized is the fact that the people that populate each of these classes have always been with us and Trump made them visible because politicians in both parties have ignored them to the point where Trump was elected as a consequence.

    And today, Trump still has a 45% job approval rating because political and intellectual leaders have failed to learn from the lessons of history, failing to enable the opportunities that a democracy is supposed to produce so that true equality can be achieved by all classes in order to prevent a demagogue like Trump from overthrowing our democracy, even threatening our civilization.

    Prof. Reich, you do a great job highlighting our failures, performing the role of an academic Lone Ranger, but I ask you, can you unite intellectuals/academics to make the right things happen before we lose yet one more democracy, and possibly our civilization?

      • Actually Anderson, I make all my comments to academics like Reich knowing full well the fact of life that Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book documented, that academics characterize themselves as pure because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.

        Thus, on Berkeley Blog, the expectation of a two-way conversation between faculty and public is not only an exercise in futility but Reich et al. keep proving that expecting self-anointed preeminent Cal faculty to unite to fight for the survival of our civilization is like herding cats, a fact of life pointed out to me many times by several of his preeminent colleagues over the years.

        • We need to look beyond the survival of our civilization and start thinking about how humanity can become a balancing force on this planet and for that our economic and political system has to change.

          Our economic system is reliant upon constant economic growth which itself relies on an exponential exploitation of limited natural resources – other factors such as productivity increases play a small role in comparison. Consumers need to stop feeding our current consumer centric system and demand change with their pocket books – the products they buy – and investments they make. We can not rely on government to do that for us.

          Our political systems have always been subjugated to economic power – power (wealth) which has always been concentrated in the hands of a few. The diversification of that power will inevitably have to come from the distribution of wealth through education, taxation and gov. regulation. For this to happen people will have to come to terms with the need to compromise so we can all move forward. We have become a society of tribes at war with each other and forgotten we all share the same goals.

          • You’re right Alvaro, and we haven’t even come close to solving the social, political and economic problems we had before COVID-19 produced a whole new level of fighting for survival circumstances. Plus the fact of life that NOAA just predicted 2020 is on track to be earth’s warmest year on record.

            Our politicians and intellectuals not only don’t get along with each other, they refuse to unify among themselves and with the public. It really appears that their brain wiring hasn’t evolved far enough from that of chimpanzees, especially as long as the power of money controls them.

            One documentation of the most destructive reality of human nature among our leaders was published in a 2006 CALIFORNIA alumni magazine “Global Warning” special issue that even our preeminent academic leaders have not overcome yet.

            Thus, COVID-19 appears to mean the answer to “Can We Adapt in Time” is “No” because time has run out.

            But, like Churchill taught us, “Never, never, never Give Up,” keep fighting harder, pushing our leaders to unify with each other and with us, because we must overcome our newest challenges of change with the greatest sense of urgency to save our democracy, our environment and our civilization today, just like Churchill and FDR did to win WWII.

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