A plastic bag and a black leather handbag six feet apart
Alicia Tatone

How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class

Experts predict the outbreak will lead to a rise in populism. But will workers turn their rage toward corporate CEOs, or middle-class “elites”?

Late last month, a photo circulated of delivery drivers crowding around Carbone, a Michelin-starred Greenwich Village restaurant, waiting to pick up $32 rigatoni and bring it to people who were safely ensconced in their apartment. A police officer, attempting to spread out the crowd, reportedly said, “I know you guys are just out here trying to make money. I personally don’t give a shit!” The poor got socially close, it seems, so that the rich could socially distance.

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The past few weeks have exposed just how much a person’s risk of infection hinges on class. Though people of all incomes are at risk of being laid off, those who can work from home are at least less likely to get sick. The low-income workers who do still have jobs, meanwhile, are likely to be stuck in close quarters with other humans. For example, grocery-store clerks face some of the greatest exposure to the coronavirus, aside from health-care workers. “Essential” businesses—grocery stores, pharmacies—are about the only places Americans are still permitted to go, and their cashiers stand less than an arm’s length from hundreds of people a day.

My inboxes have filled up with outcries from workers at big-box retailers, grocery stores, and shipping giants who say their companies are not protecting them. They say people are being sent into work despite having been in contact with people infected with the virus. They say the company promised to pay for their quarantine leave, but the payment has been delayed for weeks and they are running out of money. Or the company denied their medical leave because they don’t have proof of a nearly impossible-to-get COVID-19 test. Or the company doesn’t offer paid medical leave at all, and they’re wondering how they’ll pay for gas once they recover from the disease.

Masks are in short supply nationwide, and some managers have resisted allowing workers to wear them, fearing it will disrupt the appearance of normalcy. Some companies have rolled out “hazard pay” for employees, but in many cases it amounts to about $2 more an hour. The Amazon employees I’ve spoken with largely work fewer than 30 hours a week, and the company does not provide them with health insurance. One Walmart employee used up all his attendance “points” while sick with the virus, and was fired upon his return to work. (Walmart did not comment on his situation for my story.) At least 41 grocery-store workers have already died from the virus. “I make $14.60 an hour and don’t qualify for health care yet,” one grocery-store employee in New Mexico wrote to me. “I am freaked out.”

Meanwhile, many white-collar workers have no “points” system. Many such jobs offer as much paid time off as an employee and her manager agree to—a concept far beyond even the most generous policies at grocery stores. Many PR specialists, programmers, and other white-collar workers are doing their exact same job, except from the comfort of their home. Some are at risk of being laid off. But for the most part, they are not putting their lives in danger, except by choice.

Wealthier people also have fewer underlying health conditions that exacerbate COVID-19. And they are more likely to be practicing social distancing effectively, according to Gallup. Perhaps this is because they don’t need to leave the house as much for their livelihood: Gallup also found that 71 percent of people making more than $180,000 can work from home during the pandemic, compared with just 41 percent of those making less than $24,000. According to a recent analysis by The New York Times, the well-off are staying home the most, especially during the workweek, and they also began practicing social distancing earlier than low-income workers did.

“Self-isolation is an economic luxury,” says Justin Gest, a public-policy professor at George Mason University and the author of The New Minority. For those working-class people who do still have jobs, “it probably requires a physical presence somewhere that exposes them to the virus.”

At the same time, it isn’t as if grocery workers can simply stop coming to work. More self-checkouts could be used and more contact-free deliveries could be made, but someone has to get the Cheerios off the truck and onto the shelves. We are, through this virus, seeing who the truly “essential” workers are. It’s not the people who get paid to write tweets all day, but the people who keep the tweeters in chickpeas and Halo Top.

Epidemics and other natural disasters tend to both illuminate and reinforce existing schisms. “The division in our society between those of us who can keep our jobs and work from home and others who are losing their jobs or confronting the dangers of the virus … I think there’s a real chance that it could become more intense,” says Peter Hall, a government professor at Harvard.

Some service workers have taken to Twitter and private messaging groups to lament the fact that while they’re getting coughed on by strangers, their corporate bosses have retreated to their summer houses. Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods workers have already gone on strike to protest their working conditions. This in itself is fairly extraordinary, because American workers rarely strike. In 2017, there were just seven major work stoppages. In a particularly Gilded Age twist, Amazon’s lawyer described one of the walkout leaders, Christian Smalls, as “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo obtained by Vice News.

To find out how these rifts might escalate, I spoke with 15 experts on the sociology and politics of class. When the dust settles, there’s of course a chance that low-income workers might end up just as powerless as they were before. But history offers a precedent for plagues being, perversely, good for workers. Collective anger at low wages and poor working protections can produce lasting social change, and people tend to be more supportive of government benefits during periods of high unemployment. One study that looked at 15 major pandemics found that they increased wages for three decades afterward. The Plague of Justinian, in 541, led to worker incomes doubling. After the Black Death demolished Europe in the 1300s, textile workers in northern France received three raises in a year. Old rules were upended: Workers started wearing red, a color previously associated with nobility.

The U.S. has long been the sole holdout among rich nations when it comes to paid sick leave and other job protections. Now that some workers are getting these benefits for the coronavirus, they might be hard for businesses to claw back. If your boss let you stay home with pay when you had COVID-19, is he really going to make you come in when you have the flu? “Is this going to be an inflection point where Americans begin to realize that we need government, we need each other, we need social solidarity, we are not all cowboys, who knew?” said Joan Williams, a law professor at UC Hastings and the author of White Working Class.

Many experts said one likely result of this outbreak will be an increase in populist sentiment. But it is not yet clear whether it will be leftist populism, in the style of Senator Bernie Sanders, or conservative populism, in the style of President Donald Trump. Leftist populism will likely emphasize the common struggle of the laid off, the low-paid, and the workers derided by their bosses as expendable. Meanwhile, “right populism will ask white working-class people to be in race solidarity with rich white Americans,” Betsy Leondar-Wright, a sociologist at Lasell University, said. It will perhaps lead to the scapegoating of Chinese people and other foreigners.

Which path we go down depends, first, on whom workers brand as the “elites.” Will it be the corporate CEOs who have put them in that position, or the middle-class account coordinators who have had envious quarantines by comparison? If workers’ ire is aimed at companies, they may be forced to change corporate policies accordingly. But if America’s working class decides the enemy is the professional class—the $50,000-a-year Bushwick bloggers—we may see more misplaced bitterness toward “elites” who really aren’t.

A few months from now, the path we take will also depend on whether voters ultimately blame Trump for the pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse, and on whether Democrats are able to create a coherent narrative out of the calls for better worker protections. And in a year, it will depend on how severe the death toll turns out to be among service workers, and how well they’re able to organize in response. But if past epidemics are a guide, the workers may win out in the end.

There’s also cause, of course, to think that blue-collar life won’t be any better after the pandemic ends. In addition to being bad for workers’ health, the pandemic might well be bad for workers’ rights. After all, right-leaning populists have a political party; left-leaning populists do not. Liberal Democrats—Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—were trounced in the Democratic primary. Trump, meanwhile, is still the president.

As the election draws near, he could start to inflame tensions by claiming that the pandemic is the fault of foreigners or elites in big cities, which have so far been hit harder by the virus. Outsiders make convenient fall guys for pandemics; the Black Death led to massacres of Jews across Europe. People in some pockets of the country might not see mass deaths from COVID-19, but they would still feel the economic devastation—the layoffs, the closed businesses—convulse their town. That could become a source of resentment, said Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and the author of Political Tribes. The whole thing could seem like a hoax, blown out of proportion by liberal health wonks. If merely simmering cultural tensions brought Trump to power, think what boiling ones could do.

Republicans and Democrats already see the pandemic very differently. A Pew Research Center poll conducted March 10 to 16 found that about 80 percent of people whose main source is Fox News thought that the media slightly or greatly exaggerated the risk of the pandemic. As my colleague McKay Coppins wrote, Democrats are generally taking social distancing more seriously than Republicans are, with the most ardent deniers defiantly cozying up to strangers just to own the libs. According to a recent Pew report, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to see the coronavirus as a “significant crisis.” A recent profile of the ironically named Wellsville, Kansas, in The Washington Post revealed a town that believes the virus was made up by the media to besmirch the president. In parts of the country that are less affected by the virus, more people could become Trump supporters. Trump’s approval rating is going up in part because some people think he’s doing a good job handling the pandemic.

Poor Americans don’t uniformly support greater government intervention on behalf of workers, and it’s not clear whether the pandemic is going to shift those hardened political fault lines. In the past few decades, many low-income whites have become allied with other whites, not with other poor people. “White workers with lower levels of education have fled in large numbers to the Republican Party and are increasingly voting based on their ethno-nationalist beliefs, not class solidarity,” Bart Bonikowski, a Harvard sociology professor, said.

There is always the risk that legislators, having witnessed a cohort of children get a decent-enough education through a combination of Zoom sessions, home-ec projects, and exhausted parents, might decide that public schools aren’t worth funding all that generously. (Though, after wrangling their own children while Skyping into meetings, Americans might also develop a new appreciation for child-care workers and teachers.)

Finally, organized labor has been gutted in recent decades, making any sustained workers’-rights movement seem like a long shot. Busy employees at big-box retailers spread across the country don’t have a centralized way to communicate or even much time to do so. They also have little in common with the health-care workers treating COVID-19 patients—other than that both groups are, for now, in harm’s way. “I just think it’s tough for that to become a movement,” Christopher Witko, a political-science professor at Penn State University, said. “Americans always say, This changes everything. But it never changes anything.”

Still, entrenched beliefs about poverty and wealth are already being shaken up. Americans have long revered the wealthy, believing that they earned their place atop the hierarchy. The argument, in some quarters, has been that people should simply work harder or get more education to escape “dead end” jobs like those in warehouses or grocery stores. But today, those jobs are more crucial than middle management in white-collar firms. Disgust with the wealthy might reach an Occupy-level fever pitch, while we learn just how important the humble checker or delivery driver really is.

Such a change would be a return to a 1950s-style view of the working class, in which low-wage jobs conferred a sense of dignity. “You viewed yourself as the backbone, the heart and soul of America,” Gest said. No one is more essential than the person bringing you food at the end of a long, frightening week.

America’s poor have previously blamed themselves for their own poverty, Allison Pugh, a University of Virginia sociologist, said. But “it’s gonna be hard to blame yourself when your grandmother dies,” she said. “All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel like your fault anymore. And you’re gonna look up and be like, This is not okay.

Left-leaning populism hasn’t triumphed at the national level recently: Joe Biden just became the presumptive Democratic nominee after defeating Senator Sanders. But these types of worker protections have been a plank of the Democratic Party for years. In the future, a more social-democratic-type candidate might break through nationally—especially, Witko said, if it were a young, perhaps Hispanic candidate who spoke to a broad swath of voters. This crisis has revealed just how bad service workers have it, and afterward, their struggle might be hard to ignore.

A similar phenomenon happened when cholera struck Hamburg in 1892. The city, a large seaport in northern Germany, was then semiautonomous, and it was controlled by merchants who valued trade above all else. These businessmen did not consider public health to be a sound investment. Cholera is transmitted through tainted water, but unlike the rest of Germany, Hamburg’s authorities did not install a filtration system in the municipal water supply.

The local government in Hamburg at first played down the epidemic and resisted imposing a quarantine on the city. Much like President Trump in recent weeks, they seemed to be asking themselves, “Which interest do we put first, the economy, or peoples’ lives?” Richard Evans, author of Death in Hamburg, said. “By the time they got around to admitting it was there, it was too late.”

That August was unusually hot and dry; the city’s canals ran low. These were ideal conditions for Vibrio cholerae to creep into the water supply. Because the disease spread through human waste, people with their own bathrooms were less likely to contract it. Survivors recalled having servants scrub their houses and boil their water before they used it. The servants themselves could afford no such luxury. And much of the town’s poor population worked near the harbor, where the water was filthy and teeming with cholera bacteria. Within six weeks, up to 10,000 people had died, and the death rate among the poor was much higher than that among the rich. Through their labor, the poor sacrificed so the wealthy could survive.

That disparity seemed to galvanize the entire city. The following year, left-leaning Social Democrats won all three of Hamburg’s seats in the national Parliament. Later came an expansion of voting rights, housing reform, and, finally, the installment of a treatment system for the city’s water. Cholera killed thousands in Hamburg, but in its aftermath, the working class was given new life. In 2021, the American working class might seize their moment, too.

Related Podcast

Listen to Olga Khazan discuss the ethical dilemmas of grocery shopping and this story on an episode of Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about living through a pandemic:

Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (How to Listen)