The U.S. workforce faces a historic moment as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds across the nation. Millions of jobless Americans are struggling to find suitable employment while others scramble to adapt to novel work environments and the rapid emergence of telework. The use of automation is accelerating as industries revise their in-person operations to account for worker safety. Disproportionate job losses for minorities and low-wage workers have many demanding for government intervention and paid sick leave among other workers rights.

In this case study, we take an in-depth look at the effects of COVID-19 on the future of work and the practices that industries and governments are adapting to ensure the protection of vulnerable workers.

Automation

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred the adaptation of automation across industries. Governments across the world are now using artificial intelligence to answer COVID-19 questions posed by citizens in order to account for increased call traffic. Food delivery and retail services are using autonomous vehicles to deliver products safely to customers. Autonomous floor care robots are sweeping floors in retail and manufacturing spaces instead of essential workers to minimize human contact. 

In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that 14 percent of the global workforce would need to switch occupations by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. Their most recent report finds that coronavirus has accelerated the rate at which these transitions are taking place. Certain industries such as manufacturing, retail, accommodation, and food service are more likely to be affected because they are operations-intensive, having 1.3 times the automation potential as other sectors.

In response to these rapid changes, companies are investing in new job training. For example, Walmart is investing $4 billion in the next four years to help frontline and back-office staff transition to new customer-service-oriented roles. Amazon has pledged to spend $700 million on technology training by 2025 to help employees move to higher-skill jobs. Telehealth firms are now growing and training doctors to conduct remote diagnoses because of COVID-19 and consumer banks are cross training and reallocating bank tellers to handle automated products and services.

 

Telework

While only the most affluent have worked from home in the past, COVID-19 has made teleworking more widespread and accessible. In addition to bracing workplaces against calamities like the pandemic, telework has long been touted for its ability to connect high-skilled employees with businesses in a cost effective manner. Teleworkers can work for companies located across the globe, providing specialized services to areas that have a high demand for it (i.e. fulfilling healthcare shortages in impoverished regions through telehealth) while mitigating the need for employees to relocate. 

For these reasons, telework has been prevalent in other countries for years. In comparison to European countries, the U.S. has had one of the lowest telework rates of only 7%. In contrast, more than 20% of workers regularly use teleworking in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. Because of the pandemic, telework has been rapidly adapted by enterprises. Companies are now advocating for stimulus funding to create more robust wireless infrastructure and address cybersecurity gaps, making teleworking more accessible to all. New York State has even created a “Tech SWAT Team” to help provide digital services such as data monitoring and COVID tracing to citizens through teleworking. These changes in telework are predicted to have long-term implications for workplaces beyond the pandemic.

 

Government Investment in Labor

As unemployment rises and entire industries find themselves without work during the pandemic, corporate leaders are calling for government investment into workforce training to help workers adapt to these changes and find suitable employment. Other countries regularly invest more in job training than the U.S. with Canada spending three times as much and Scandinavian countries spending twelve times as much government funding as a percentage of economic activity. Job training helps workers gain new technical skills to transition to new fields and find work when they are unemployed. American nonprofits are stepping up to fill the demand for skills training in light of COVID-19. The Markle Foundation, Year Up, Per Scholas, and Project Quest are trying to help low-income adults find work. Other online training networks like Coursera and Udacity are offering skill-based courses online. Additionally, the U.S. Labor Department recently created the Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs to facilitate apprenticeships in sectors like health care and telecommunications.

 

Paid Sick Leave

The U.S. and South Korea are the only two countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that do not guarantee paid sick leave for all of their citizens. In fact, only 12 states and the District of Columbia currently require employers to provide paid sick leave for their employees. 

The ongoing health crisis has brought these standards into questions. With 24% percent of the U.S. workforce lacking paid sick leave, workers who are afflicted with coronavirus or have afflicted family members risk losing essential income, and even their livelihoods, if they fall ill. The issue of paid sick leave is also exacerbated by economic divides. For instance, only 27% of food preparation and service workers have paid sick leave while 92% of the top quarter of earners in the U.S. get paid time off. Due to these discrepancies, government agencies are now taking action and requiring employers to provide at least 80 hours of paid sick leave to workers who contract the coronavirus or who have affected family members. 

 

Diversity and Equity

Certain sectors and demographics continue to be more impacted by workforce changes than others. Service industries including leisure, hospitality, education, health, and retail have accounted for 59% of pandemic job losses. Almost twice as many women work in these fields as men and women are 1.8 times more likely to have lost their jobs. Hispanic women have similarly experienced higher unemployment rates than any other group of workers due to disproportionate representation in service-oriented sectors. Women overall are vulnerable to job loss during the pandemic because the virus is increasing the need for childcare, which is disproportionately carried by women. Workers without any college education are more likely to have lost their jobs due to the types of industries they work in as well. 


Several measures have been proposed by corporations to mitigate the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on disadvantaged and minority workers. For instance, McKinsey and Co proposes that interventions to address unpaid child care through employer or state-funded childcare provisions and family-friendly workplace policies and programs could help women retain jobs. Several major corporations including Facebook and Verizon are offering grants specifically for minority-owned enterprises to cover losses incurred because of the pandemic. Many are calling for better digital infrastructure and inclusion as well to help disadvantaged communities adapt to new technological needs as well and find suitable work.