A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 177

The workers’ pal.

Monday, December 7

The global pandemic seems to have triggered an openness to workplace change among employers. 

The New Zealand company that imports and distributes Lipton Tea and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream  has just announced that it is moving to a four-day work week, with no change in pay, for its regular employees.

Meanwhile, of course, a large number of companies are allowing, even encouraging, employees to work from home (thereby saving money on office rent). And in a move that not everyone regards as positive, Uber and its allies recently won a California state referendum that encourages the spread of “gig employment,” under which workers have the freedom to come and go as free-lancers—but also employers have few responsibilities toward said workers.

Unilever New Zealand’s move toward a four-day workweek has prompted many to ask: Why didn’t this happen sooner? After all, Vice-President Richard Nixon predicted a move to such a shorter workweek back in 1956. 

Inertia and bosses’ natural resistance to any kind of pro-worker reform are always at work, of course. Even though Henry Ford’s auto-plant workers had enjoyed an eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek since 1926, it took years for the U.S. to adopt such standards more broadly—the twelve-hour day was standard in much of heavy industry into the 1930s. The Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law in 1938, set a ceiling on hours at 44 per week, then 40 per week two years later.

And different industries have different limitations. In the steel industry, which in America entered into its prime around the turn of the 20th century, plants ran flat-out, 24 hours a day. Twelve-hour work days meant hiring only two shifts per day; a switch to eight-hour days would mean three shifts, increasing labor costs by 50%. In contrast, lots of “knowledge work” can be and is done anytime, anywhere. The idea for rum raisin ice cream could have arisen while some employee was having his evening dessert pudding.

Moreover, Unilever has a lengthy history with what has been termed welfare capitalism. The New Zealand unit is a descendant of the British company, Lever Brothers, which was one of several companies to create model company towns in the 19th century. Port Sunlight, as the Lever town in Merseyside was called, housed a company soap works and a model village for workers, featuring pretty cottages, an art gallery, a hospital, schools, a concert hall, a swimming pool, and churches. William Lever, who became the Viscount Leverhulme, said his goal was to “socialize and Christianise business relations.” The better environment, he thought, would mean happier and more productive workers. Port Sunlight was an inspiration for other model company towns, including Hershey, Pennsylvania and Pullman, Illinois.

Also among those calling for a four-day workweek is former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Companies that adopt such hours will, he says, draw the best talent, just as Henry Ford did in the 1920s. 

Dinner: Avgolemono soup and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: the final episode from season two of the Swedish version of Wallander on Kanopy, plus an episode of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 62

Hotel-ready: An ultraviolet virus-killing wand.

Saturday, May 9

Unemployment is at scary levels, it seems. But, hey, that’s not so bad for everyone.

If actual U.S. unemployment is around 20%, as some at the Labor Department admit, employers will have no problem filling low-wage jobs. Those recently enacted laws mandating a $15 minimum wage? Fuggetaboutit. They’ll be undercut by the underground-economy reality.

And consider the other evils of prosperity. When demand is high for goods and services, suppliers can more easily raise prices—and that can mean inflation across the economy. When raw materials are eagerly dug and mined, when the seas are plundered of fish, and when forests and jungles are stripped of their trees and wildlife, the planet comes under ever greater pressure. In fat times, stores are crowded, highways are crammed with traffic, and the skies are darkened with pollution. Recession can be a cure for all such woes.

But will some of today’s unemployment be permanent? Already a lot of people had lost permanent jobs and had only marginal slots within the so-called “gig economy,” where you make do with one small project after another. I know many such people—and I myself have taken on several such projects in the past 10 years. Gig posts can be eliminated at the drop of the hat.

On top of all this, technological job displacement is on the rise. One example: A number of sources, including the Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation at the University of Minnesota, point toward job loss resulting from only one labor-saving innovation, driverless vehicles. In a majority of U.S. states, the most common job is truck driving.

Take those jobs away, and the argument for a guaranteed annual income becomes absolutely compelling. Come back, Andrew Yang!

No matter what anyone says, East End guesthouses are anticipating the summer season. The East Hampton Star has interviewed management at Baker House 1650 and other swank hostelries and found them ready to reopen. “The new must-have amenities will include face masks made from luxurious fabric, chic dispensers for hand sanitizer, body temperature scanners, aesthetically pleasing dividers to ensure people maintain six feet of social distance, and other items that allow people to feel safe and pampered,” says The Star

Common spaces will be cleaned on an hourly basis, and rooms will get zapped with an ultraviolet light-sanitizing wand. Maybe we could stick that down your throat while we’re at it, eh Mr. President? Shine a light inside the body?

Earlier I ventured out to nearby Maidstone Market, hoping to make up a bit for the shortfall in Peapod’s delivery. Until very recently, you’d go to a window at Maidstone Market and just tell a staffer what you wanted. But suddenly, they’re allowing patrons to come inside the store so long as you’re wearing a face mask. Boy, they had lots of stuff—and boy do you pay for it. I got some cornbread mix, a dozen eggs, and two rolls of antacid—for a measly $11.85. Them that’s got shall get, and them that’s not shall lose.

Tonight’s dinner: Ziti with roasted red pepper, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts, plus a green salad with avocado. 

Tonight’s entertainment: the final episodes of The Valhalla Murders