Coronavirus didn’t create the holes and divisions in the U.S. economy, but it surely has widened them

The U.S. Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report for April provides a jarring look at the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the state of employment. The Washington Post‘s Tracy Jan summarizes (link here):

As the unemployment rate soared in April to its highest levels since the Great Depression, with 14.7 percent of workers without jobs, the coronavirus shutdown fell unequally on Americans according to age, gender, educational attainment as well as race.

Women became unemployed at higher rates than men. Hispanics and blacks were hit harder than whites and Asians. Those without high school diplomas fared the worst. As did teenagers, of whom nearly a third are now out of work.

Jan’s full story takes a deeper look at the labor market implications from these numbers. Suffice it to say that while the pandemic is now affecting people in virtually all demographic groupings except for the super wealthy, it is delivering especially painful blows on those who had already fallen behind.

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Back in early-to-mid March (which now seems like another era ago), I anticipated a severe, coronavirus-induced recession (here) and the need for a significant economic bail-out of Main Street and its residents (here). I based my assessments on (1) the low cash reserves of most small and medium-sized businesses and non-profits; and (2) the millions of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

However, if anything, I underestimated how rapidly these economic realities would manifest themselves. Recently I recalled the results of a Federal Reserve survey covering personal finances of Americans. As Soo Youn reported for ABC News last year (link here):

Almost 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off, a Federal Reserve survey finds.

About 27% of those surveyed would need to borrow the money or sell something to come up with the $400 and an additional 12% would not be able to cover it at all, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2018 report on the economic well-being of U.S. households released on Thursday.

These survey findings basically tell us most of what we need to know about our financial readiness for a crisis.

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As I wrote in early March, “(a)t least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.”

This was America’s shaky foundation as the pandemic appeared.

Thus, the already gaping holes and divisions in the U.S. economy and its social safety net simply awaited another seismic event to widen them. For now, at least, the pandemic has given us what appears to be a terrible choice: Re-open the economy while infection rates are steady or even increasing vs. remain in a quarantine state in order to squelch the spread of the virus.

A more equitable economic structure, stronger safety net protections, and/or more effective early public health responses would’ve made these choices less dire, but such is the cost of repeatedly bad policies, practices, and leadership. I hope that we learn these lessons for next time.

The debt we are accruing to workers we now deem essential

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed an ambitious new program to provide free college for workers deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. As reported by Wesley Whistle for Forbes (link here):

Today, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) announced “Futures for Frontliners,” as a part of a series of initiatives to help Michigan families during and after the coronavirus pandemic. This new program would provide tuition-free higher education for those considered essential workers during the coronavirus lockdowns.

…According to the press release, this program would provide those without a college degree a path to a higher education credential or degree. Those specified as essential workers included hospital and nursing home staff, grocery store employees, child care workers, those manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.

May this be but one small initiative designed to recognize the everyday contributions of service workers in our economy and society. Many of us are able to shelter at home and to practice social distancing because of retail and delivery services performed by workers who receive only modest pay and benefits at best.

We owe these workers a growing debt of gratitude, but here in the U.S., we are way behind when it comes to embracing employee dignity as a primary objective for our workplace practices and public policies. For millions of service workers classified as essential employees, the agenda for change includes better pay, safer and healthier working conditions, and health insurance and retirement plans.

Will we see the light?

Hopefully this public health crisis is shining a light on that need for change. And just maybe, wealthy folks are among those paying closer attention.

For example, Mark Cuban — owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team and co-star of the “Shark Tank” reality TV show for budding entrepreneurs — went on National Public Radio in April (link here) and explained how the pandemic has changed the way he regards the importance of corporate social responsibility:

Of anything as devastating and dangerous as the coronavirus has been, it’s also been a great equalizer. I mean, it can affect anybody. But within the business construct, just the idea that everybody has got to do their job or participate in a way that works for not just the business, but for individual families, but also customers. And so, I think it doesn’t matter what your role is. Each role is of equal importance.

The CEO is of no more importance than somebody cleaning the floors or that takes a bucket and mops the floors. I think that this is a time as a reset where we really have to reevaluate how we treat workers, how people are paid, how can we get them into a role where they receive an equity as part of their compensation. So that they’re not having to live paycheck to paycheck, they have something that appreciates. All these things I think are important as we go through this reset in business.

Labor unions are essential to solutions

Even if more corporate executives start to get it, we still need to ground these changes in a stronger labor movement. To illustrate, labor studies professor John Logan (San Francisco State U.) is an expert on working conditions in the retail grocery sector. Here’s a snippet of a recent piece he wrote for The Hill (link here) about grocery store workers, in connection with the coronavirus pandemic:

Researchers have long known that unionized workplaces – whether in mining, construction, manufacturing or warehouses – are significantly safer for employees than non-union workplaces. Now we are learning in real time that the same is true for grocery workers, who have been unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Previously treated as “unskilled” and “disposable,” grocery workers are now recognized as essential personnel who are helping to keep millions of Americans alive.

…Large non-union companies such as Walmart, Target and Amazon have introduced their own measures on worker safety and employment security, but their limited efforts have largely focused pay raises and bonuses to attract and retain employees.

…In the past, many food retailers have lobbied against measures such as paid sick leave that would have better protected workers and shoppers in this time of national crisis. The same companies cannot now be trusted to prioritize worker and public safety over their own greed.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken us hard and fast, and we’ve got a ways to go before we are done with it. Nevertheless, it’s time for us to be thinking about how we can create a society that values the contributions of all workers. If we don’t learn these lessons now, then shame on us.

“Disastershock”: A free handbook for coping with disaster and trauma

Disastershock: How to Cope with the Emotional Stress of a Major Disaster is a free handbook (link here) for individuals and communities, co-authored by Drs. Brian Gerrard, Emily Girault, Valerie Appleton, Suzanne Giraudo, and Sue Linville Shaffer. First appearing in 1989, this valuable book has just been updated to include mental health challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a brief description:

This Disastershock book is intended to help families and communities to cope with disaster related stress such as that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Part I describes ten effective methods to be used to reduce stress. Part 2 describes 12 stress reduction methods to be used with children. Although Part 2 was written primarily for parents, teachers and other adults working with children will find it useful. A unique feature of Disastershock is that its practical stress reduction methods are described in an explicit manner making them easy to learn. 

You may freely download an English-language version of Disastershock by clicking here. It is currently being translated into languages of nations significantly affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Disastershock has been praised by mental health professionals and educators from around the globe. Practicality, accessibility, and brevity (under 50 pp.) are among its key strengths; you won’t feel overwhelmed by it. I became aware of the book from one of its co-authors, Dr. Brian Gerrard, emeritus faculty member at the University of San Francisco and chief academic officer and core faculty member at the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. I recommend it enthusiastically.

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Along these lines, I’d like to reiterate my earlier recommendation of the John Hopkins University’s Psychological First Aid course (link here) taught by Dr. George Everly and offered for free by Coursera, a leading provider of online, continuing education courses. As I wrote in a blog post last September

Dr. Everly developed his PFA model to provide first responders who are not trained as counselors with knowledge and training to assist those who have experienced traumatic events, such as displacement due to wars, severe weather events, and other man-made and natural disasters.

In addition to completing the course myself, I assigned it to students in my Law and Psychology Lab course at Suffolk University Law School, and they responded very favorably to it.

How COVID-19 has placed health care providers at grave risk of moral injury

Obviously the coronavirus pandemic is squeezing the capabilities of our health care systems. It also is impacting the psychological health and well-being of health care providers on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients, especially as they strive to provide life-saving treatment without adequate resources.

The ultimate nightmare scenarios include choices that may have to be made when the number of severely ill patients exceeds the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators. For example, here in Massachusetts, a task force of doctors and medical ethicists has developed a controversial protocol for determining who gets ventilators and other treatments and who does not, when demand exceeds availability. As reported by Adam Gaffin for Universal Hub, a local online news site (link here):

The “crisis standards of care” guidelines are designed for a hospital system in the process of collapse – too many sick people and not enough medicine equipment and healthcare providers to care for them all – possibly because they themselves might be knocked out by the virus.

When that happens, and patients are coming in faster than hospitals can provide intensive care for them, doctors will have to switch from trying to care for each individual patient to trying to maximize total “life years saved” for the community as a whole, the task force concluded.

To do that, a designated a triage doctor will assign patients scores based on such factors that include not just the severity of their Covid-19 infection but their age and preexisting conditions, with points added for each. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, as well as patients who otherwise would be involved in “maintaining societal order,” however, would have points subtracted….In the event of a tie score between two patients, the younger one would “win,” because of the priority of maximizing total “life-years” saved.

…Patients with the lowest scores would then have their medical records color coded – so that ICU staffers know at a glance who’s next for a ventilator – possibly even if that means removing somebody with a higher score from one. Red-tagged patients would be first in line, orange next and then all the older, sicker patients would be marked as yellow.

The guidelines promulgated in Massachusetts are similar to those developed in other states and nations. Basically, if the swell of COVID-19 infections is overwhelming the availability of hospital resources, doctors and other health care providers are directed to institute a triage system that determines who gets potentially life-saving treatment and who does not. 

The specter of moral injury

The excruciating challenge of treating patients with inadequate supplies is placing health care providers at grave risk of moral injury. “Moral injury,” as defined by Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project (link here), “is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”

As Dr. Wendy Dean, psychiatrist and co-founder of Fix Moral Injury, a non-profit organization, explains in Time magazine (link here):

If healthcare workers can’t provide the care they typically believe is medically necessary for their patients, they may experience a phenomenon known as “moral injury,” says Dr. Wendy Dean, a psychiatrist and the co-founder of the nonprofit Fix Moral Injury. Dean says that American healthcare providers are used to doing anything and everything to help their patients, but inadequate protective gear and triage procedures will force them to make “exquisitely painful” decisions, such as choosing whether or not to risk infecting themselves, their family and other patients in order to help everyone in their care.

The consequences of moral injury can be significant. According to the Syracuse Moral Injury Project:

Moral injury can lead to serious distress, depression, and suicidality. Moral injury can take the life of those suffering from it, both metaphorically and literally. Moral injury debilitates people, preventing them from living full and healthy lives.

The effects of moral injury go beyond the individual and can destroy one’s capacity to trust others, impinging on the family system and the larger community. Moral injury must be brought forward into the community for a shared process of healing.

The specter of moral injury is among the reasons why our health care providers will require ongoing help in dealing with the psychological burdens and health risks of working to save lives during this pandemic. This experience will leave its formative mark on current generations of health care workers for decades to come. We owe them our support for the short and long runs alike.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement was born in Oakland

I’m a nostalgic sort of person by nature, and the imposed solitude of the current public health crisis has opened up memories as I spend some of this time sorting through personal and professional papers and mementoes. Among the work-related materials unearthed were these items from 2000 pictured above, a January 2000 certificate of appreciation from Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, co-founders of the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (which would evolve into the Workplace Bullying Institute), and a print copy of my first law review article on the legal implications of workplace bullying.

The certificate is from “Workplace Bullying 2000,” the first-ever U.S. conference on workplace bullying that Gary and Ruth organized and hosted in Oakland, California. It was my first opportunity to meet pioneering workplace researchers, educators, and advocates from around the world. Many remain dear friends and valued colleagues to this day. It was also where I first discussed the need for stronger legal protections against workplace bullying.

Although the Namies had done groundbreaking work by launching their Campaign in 1997, I consider their 2000 conference to be the true birth of a broader workplace anti-bullying movement in the U.S. Prior to this conference, many of us had been doing our work in relative isolation, with the Namies serving as points of contact in a sort of hub-of-the-wheel-spokes fashion. The conference enabled us to create connections with one another, which would lead to many future collaborations and partnerships.

The article is “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” published in the Georgetown Law Journal in the spring of 2000. (Go here to freely download a pdf.) In the piece, I explored potential existing legal protections against severe workplace bullying and concluded that they were wholly inadequate to provide relief to abused employees and to incentivize preventive and responsive measures by employers. I then went on to propose the basic framework of what eventually would become the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). A full draft of the HWB would come later, but all the seeds were planted in this article.

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Fast forwarding to today, we have made considerable progress. Spurred by the Namies early (and still continuing) work, workplace bullying has become mainstreamed as a term in American employment relations. Accounts of bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors are regularly reported in the media. Academic and professional conferences in fields such as organizational psychology, business management and human resources, and labor relations often feature panels on abuse at work. And as I wrote last November, we are nearing the day when the Healthy Workplace Bill starts to become law in various states.

The current public health crisis has put some of this work on hold, or at least on a slowdown. Among other things, state legislatures deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill are understandably preoccupied with policy responses to the coronavirus. This may well be the case through the current legislative sessions.

Nevertheless, this time provides us with opportunities to engage in thinking, planning, and strategizing for the future. Bullying and mobbing behaviors won’t suddenly disappear from the workplace after we regain some sense of normalcy, so the need for our public education and advocacy efforts will remain as vital as ever.

That said, I do find myself asking: When we re-open the heart of our economic and civic society, will the frequency of workplace bullying and mobbing increase, decrease, or remain roughly the same? Folks hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer and companies practicing price gouging for life-saving supplies suggest that the dog-eat-dog dynamic of many workplaces isn’t going away. On the other hand, we are witnessing extraordinary acts of courage, generosity, and grace during this crisis, including employers who are stretching their capacities to support their workers. I dearly hope that this shared experience will bring out more of the best of us, and that this will translate into how we treat one another at work for years to come.

Coronavirus: Timelines toward normalcy and choices for society

(image courtesy of clipartmag.com)

I’m neither a public health expert nor a physician, but whenever I hear people asking when life will return to normal, I keep coming back to three requirements regarding the coronavirus:

  • The availability of inexpensive, fast, and readily available testing — ideally accurate do-at-home tests;
  • Effective therapeutic treatments that can stop infections from turning into severe cases that require hospitalization and invasive ventilator treatment; and,
  • An effective preventive vaccine, hopefully one that provides blanket protection along the lines of the polio vaccine, but in any event more effective than seasonal flu shots.

Until we have these three pieces in place, I cannot imagine life regaining a strong semblance of normalcy. Instead, at best we will experience periodic outbreaks that require us to return to social distancing and shelter-at-home practices.

So what’s the timeline on these needed public health developments? Based on way too much surfing around for information and informed opinion about the virus, I think it’s reasonable to expect (1) widely available testing kits by the end of the year; (2) therapeutic treatments later this year or early in 2021; and (3) a vaccine available sometime in 2021.

If I’m right, it means that we’re going to be in this mode of living for some time. Accordingly, this increasingly will start to feel like wartime-style deprivation and sacrifice. The world of work will continue to be profoundly affected. Displaced workers and shut-down businesses will need ongoing public subsidies during this time.

I hope that I am very wrong. I hope that our heroic doctors and medical researchers will improvise miraculous treatments in the coming weeks. I hope they will make brilliant discoveries on the vaccine front that can be quickly screened for safety and provided to the public.

More realistically, I think we should hope for the best but prepare ourselves for a longer haul. Among other things, our planning should include creating a much stronger social safety net for supporting individuals, small businesses and non-profits, and our cultural and educational institutions. 

In other words, how we deal with the weeks and months to come — individually and collectively — will define the character of our society for many years, well after we’ve quashed this damnable virus. Let generosity, compassion, and care be our guiding lights.

Academic home work: Of Zoom and coronavirus

Law and Psychology Lab at Suffolk Law goes online

Well folks, my work as a law professor these days often boils down to one word: Zoom.

If you’re aware of what’s going on at colleges and universities around the world during the coronavirus crisis, then you’ve likely heard of a videoconferencing platform called Zoom. Zoom is a fairly easy-to-use system that allows us to hold classes, meetings, and seminars in real time. In order to safeguard public health, we’re experiencing a sudden, massive migration of instruction to online formats, and Zoom has been the most popular platform for delivering courses. Suffolk University here in Boston is no exception.

Yesterday I taught two classes, Employment Law and Law and Psychology Lab, on Zoom. I’ve included above the “class picture” I took of our Law and Psychology Lab session last evening — with the students’ kind permission, of course!

How does this compare with face-to-face teaching? Let me start by saying that I appreciate having a serviceable online platform that allows us to create a decent semblance of an in-person class session. Without Zoom and similar services, our only other option would be to record and post lectures. While some professors are doing this, I’m attempting, to the degree possible, to maintain a regular class schedule with live sessions.

Furthermore, I’m proud that our students are doing their best to navigate these very difficult and uncertain circumstances. Not only has the mode of instruction changed dramatically, but also important matters such jobs and summer internships, scheduling of bar examinations, and the like remain unsettled. A lot of plans have been thrown into disarray. I have long said that the classic Suffolk Law student is smart, hardworking, and not entitled. Those characteristics are being put to the test right now.

Of course, I’m grateful that I can work and receive a paycheck at a time when unemployment rates are soaring to stunning levels and businesses are taking a beating. While I am confident that we’ll see effective treatments and vaccines for this virus, until they arrive on the scene, our economy will be in upheaval. The process of re-opening our economic lives (not to mention our social and civic lives) will take time as well.

Indeed, I look forward to the day when we can return to our physical classrooms. I think a lot of our students feel the same way. I’m hearing that the experience of attending classes via video conferencing is proving to be tiring. Some of us are reporting headaches from so much time spent in front of computer screens. I think I will need to engage in healthier social distancing from my laptop during the upcoming weeks and months.

In any event, mine are but small adjustments compared to the challenges facing health care providers and other essential workers who are putting themselves on the line for us every day, as well as the millions who are scrambling to pay rent and basic living expenses. For those of us able to work from home, our jobs — our responsibilities, I’d say — include making the best of this situation, being generous when it comes to supporting others, and practicing safe health habits for the benefit of all.

Roundup: On organizational change rhetoric, strategic planning, and consultants

Hello dear readers, over the life of this blog, I’ve sometimes taken aim at certain popular management practices. Here’s a roundup of some of my favorites:

Using the empty rhetoric of change to justify or impose change (2015) (link here) — “With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times are always a-changin’. But if you buy into the rhetoric of certain practitioners of management-speak, then you’d think that the impetus for change occurs at those magic moments when they happen to be in charge.”

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011) (link here) — “My friends in management consulting may toss me out of the visitor’s lounge for saying this, but two words uttered together send a chill up my spine: Strategic planning. . . . Organizations should engage in smart, inclusive planning and evaluation. But there’s something about mega-processes like strategic planning that often do neither.”

Time wasters from top management (2017) (link here) — “Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity…. These ‘practices, procedures, and structures’ include ‘too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.’”

If you work in higher education, beware the C word (2015) (link here) — “If you work in higher education as a professor, staff member, or low-to-mid level administrator, pay attention if you hear some variation of the following coming from the top: We’re bringing in XYZ Consulting to help with strategic planning and to assess what changes we need to make in order to survive/thrive/rightsize/move up in the rankings.”

Consultants and the “outsourcing of leadership” (2014) (link here) — “Take a look around your workplace. Are there consultants buzzing around, addressing practically every major pending concern or decision your organization faces? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it’s likely that your employer is engaging in what a friend of mine brilliantly calls the ‘outsourcing of leadership.’”

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012) (link here) — “But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)”

We bailed out Wall Street during the Great Recession, so let’s bail out Main Street and everyday people during the coronavirus crisis

(image courtesy Clipart Panda)

When the stock market crashed in 2008 and the world of high finance took a tremendous hit, the U.S. federal government came along and gave huge bailouts to Wall Street and its siblings. Most experts agrees that these dramatic moves were necessary in order to save the nation’s financial infrastructure.

Today, small businesses, non-profits, and individual employees are among those taking the hardest hit, as the economy essentially goes into quarantine due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. A lot of folks are understandably fearful about what their companies, organizations, and personal finances will look like during the weeks and months to come.

I’m not a public health expert, but drawing upon the mountain of information and commentary available, it appears that we’re at least a year away from widespread availability of a vaccine. In the meantime, a lot of very smart people are trying out different treatment approaches, but there’s no magic bullet for now. As I see it, this uncertainty is very likely to continue into next year.

All of which suggests that our elected and appointed officials, and other leaders in the business and non-profit sectors, must lead with a commitment to create a stronger social safety net and support for rebuilding businesses and organizations — while our medical and scientific communities work on treatments and vaccines that I’m confident we’ll eventually have to blunt this virus. It would help a lot if those promises — however unsupported by details at this moment — were made now, in order to soothe some of the anxiety and sadness that we’re already seeing.

WBI’s 2020 survey: The vital importance of funding workplace bullying research

One of the most important sources of information about the frequency, severity, and demographics of workplace bullying in the U.S. is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s periodic scientific national surveys. Designed by WBI director Gary Namie in conjunction with a national polling firm, these authoritative, carefully designed surveys are regularly cited by the news media and by researchers.

Dr. Namie is planning the next survey. Even with a generously discounted rate, these surveys cost money, so WBI is launching a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the expenses. I am happy to be among the donors, and if you can afford it, I hope you’ll join in. Please go here to support the 2020 survey through GoFundMe.

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To freely access past surveys, go here and click to either the 2017, 2014, 2010, or 2007 reports on the left side of the page.

Cover of the 2017 WBI survey

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