Annie Lowrey: The small-business die-off is here
Talk of returning to work seems like idle banter while children are still at home all the time. Why should employers invest in elaborate modifications to a workplace if, in six weeks, schools tell working parents that they have to stay home with their kids for many more months? Waiting seems prudent, especially considering that few major districts have announced their fall plans yet. Schools turn out to be a form of crucial infrastructure; as with water and electricity, if the education system is down, not much else can happen.
Corporate lawyers have a different set of concerns. Even as President Donald Trump demands that the nation reopen, his administration is failing to provide clear guidance on how to do so. Without such guidance, employers face unknown liability exposure, even when they are acting in good faith, if they expose employees to harm at or en route to work. This is why corporate America is desperately clamoring for protection against liability for coronavirus exposure. But they don’t have it yet.
The nation’s official health advisers also recommend that workers remain at home, if possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released watered-down guidance to employers late last week, after news reports suggested that the administration had blocked more detailed advice from the agency. Beyond telling employers to promote better hygiene and disinfect workspaces more often, it also urged them to encourage telework when feasible.
Insurers may well demand it. For the most part, employers are not well insured for a pandemic, and insurers are frequently denying coronavirus-related claims. Employers, in other words, will face financial pressure to better mitigate the risk. How? Well, one solution has been provided by the insurance industry itself. Nationwide announced recently that it would adopt a permanent hybrid work model, reducing its footprint to all but four facilities by the end of the year, for health and safety reasons.
Employees do not mind. Trump has claimed that “real people” are clamoring to get back to work and resume their lives outside of home confinement. But polls suggest that those “real people” do not exist in significant numbers. Support for social-distancing measures remains strong. A Gallup poll last month showed that most people who are working from home want to keep doing so after the crisis abates. Meanwhile, employees whose jobs require them to leave home express trepidation about doing so; 60 percent feared exposing their families to COVID-19. Even higher percentages of African American and Hispanic workers voiced such concerns.
The coronavirus has accelerated trends that were already under way. Companies were looking for ways to cut their spending on office space; many workers were eager to telecommute more often. Even assuming that remote work does put a dent in productivity or employee unity, bringing employees back is a high price to pay for corporate culture. The U.S. is fast approaching the 100,000-dead mark. We can’t go back to life before the pandemic. We have to get through it—and adapt. And, for the time being, that means more Zoom.