Juliette Kayyem: Never go back to the office
Liability relief has become the Republicans’ “red line,” according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—the one thing he’s “going to insist” on as a condition of additional federal assistance, including aid to battered states and localities. The president has said much the same, and White House officials have even suggested they could indemnify companies without congressional action (legal experts say otherwise). If corporate America gets what it wants, not only will employees who become sick lose a means of legal recourse, but employers will also have less incentive to make workplaces safe. A huge set of life-or-death risks will fall on workers and their families, rather than being shared more broadly across our society.
If that happens, it won’t be new. Over the past generation, a transformation that I have called the “great risk shift” has played out in nearly every domain of economic life: job security, work-family balance, retirement, health care. The growth of contingent employment, the rise of dual-earner and single-parent families who must juggle work and caregiving, the decline of employment-based health benefits, and the near-extinction of defined-benefit pension plans have all forced working Americans to take on responsibilities that corporations and government once bore jointly. Although public policies have occasionally pushed in the other direction—as with the broadening of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act—the trends have mostly pointed one way: toward making workers and their families bear more risk and responsibility on their own.
Now, in the midst of the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, this rapidly accelerating risk-shifting presents the United States with a fateful choice. We can ensure we really are all in this together. Or we can allow the risk-pooling systems that sustain a modern market economy to collapse, with all the fallout that would cause.
Derek Thompson: Social distancing is not enough
Workers’ situation today may seem unprecedented. But in fact, it’s strikingly similar to Americans’ grim realities at the end of the 19th century. As the United States rapidly industrialized, workplaces became sites of death and disability on a scale that’s now hard to fathom. According to the legal historian John Fabian Witt, high-risk industries had an annual death rate from 3 in 1,000 (railroads) to an almost unbelievable 60 in 1,000 (anthracite-coal mining). In all, roughly 1 in every 1,000 Americans died as the result of a workplace accident each year. That’s higher than the death rate from COVID-19 in any country today. (As of May 28, Belgium had the highest coronavirus fatality rate, at 0.82 deaths per 1,000 people.)
In one respect, however, the state of affairs for workers back then may have been better than it will be for workers who face the risk of COVID-19. At the dawn of the last century, wage earners and their families could sue their employers over workplace deaths and injuries, and many did. Big judgments were rare, settlements the norm, and the large majority of accidents never litigated. Still, mounting liability costs were a major reason employers swung behind the nation’s first system of “social insurance” for wage earners: Workers’ compensation programs were passed in almost all states by 1920. More than a decade before Social Security, in short, the United States socialized most of the responsibility for workplace death and disability—the very responsibility that corporations and Republicans are eager to shift back onto workers today.