EDITORIAL: Pandemic sheds light on work issues

·3 min read

Sep. 6—The world of work has evolved so quickly since March 2020 that established ways of doing things and government response to best protect workers in multiple sectors are outdated or in need of review.

A global pandemic has a way of shedding light on how ill-prepared we are for so many work-related issues.

From a day care worker shortage that was already a huge problem in rural Minnesota before the pandemic to meat plant workers suffering from COVID-19 not getting the same workers' compensation access as sick medical workers, the list of workplace issues these days is long and complex.

The workplace shakeup is not going to fade anytime soon. Health care workers across the country are leaving the profession, burned out by caring for COVID-19 patients in a pandemic that has no end in sight as anti-vaxxers continue to fill hospital beds. The restaurant and hospitality industry was itching for restrictions to expire so it could get back to normal, only to find many couldn't operate normally because not enough staff can be hired to do so. Manufacturers have picked up the pace of production again only to find they also can't fill positions.

Last week was the conclusion of extra federal unemployment benefits in Minnesota and now we will find out what that means for filling the numerous job vacancies across the state. Even with that extra unemployment payment disappearing, some workers have determined that slogging away at full-time jobs for low pay and less-than-illustrious benefits isn't the way they want to live their lives, especially younger, mobile members of the workforce.

And the classification of "essential" workers has highlighted how slippery the definition can be. Of course, emergency responders and front-line health care providers are essential during a pandemic and have rightly received workers' compensation. Under a new Minnesota law, it's assumed that they got sick because of their jobs and deserve compensation because of it.

In the meantime, meat plant workers, according to MinnPost, have not had a single claim for compensation accepted due to COVID-19. That's the case despite infections closing several plants and leading to fears of supply shortages across the country. The federal government quickly ordered the plants to reopen. Not having a safety net for those workers means COVID-19-infected employees are more likely to come to work and will spread the virus, no matter if they caught it at work or elsewhere.

As a state panel tried to determine which essential workers deserve payment from a pot of $250 million set aside from federal funds, it became very clear that the money falls ridiculously short of touching the lives of all the workers who deserve extra pay for their work during the pandemic.

The rollout of the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help businesses weather the pandemic proved to be uneven and appeared to help many big businesses that didn't really need it while smaller and often minority-owned businesses didn't have access or the expertise to tackle the application. That entire process and system needs thorough review to make sure the businesses most in need receive the most aid.

As we mark another Labor Day during the pandemic, federal and state leaders as well as employers need to fully recognize that COVID-19 has changed work as we know it. A culture that balances work and life, better pay and benefits, fixing inequities and protecting front-line workers are among the issues that will need attention now and in the future.

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