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 41

The Wages of Fear: Hazardous duty.

Saturday, April 18

This morning,  I woke up thinking about the movie The Wages of Fear with Yves Montand. You remember: In that 1953 Italian-French thriller (also known as Le salaire de la peur) four unemployed guys agree to drive two loads of nitroglycerin over treacherous, primitive mountain roads. It seems there’s a fire in an oil field 300 miles away, and the explosives are needed to extinguish the flames. The isolated town of Las Piedras (in Mexico?) is dominated by the behemoth Southern Oil Co., which has a tight grip on the population. But the guys aren’t going to take on the very dangerous task—we’re told often just how unpredictable and explosion-prone nitro can be—unless they get paid handsomely. Did someone say “hazardous duty pay”?

Now, what about today’s service workers who every day risk coming into contact with dangerously infected people and places? How should their remuneration be set? Should postal workers and supermarket clerks only get what they ordinarily get—after all, they’re lucky to have jobs at all. Or shouldn’t there be something more for them? And just how much more? How should that get determined?

In the movie, the drive is considered too hazardous for the company’s unionized workers. But Montand and his mates have nothing else going on—shouldn’t they be willing to do the task for minimum wages? The company offers to pay each of them $2,000. Is that a lot or a little?  (An online calculator says that $2,000 in 1953 dollars would amount to $19,248.99 today.)

A current Democratic proposal would pay workers in COVID-19 harm’s way bonuses of $13 per hour above their normal salaries, with a cap of $25,000 for those making under $200,000. If your regular salary is higher, your bonus would be limited to $5,000.

So $25,000 to risk your life for several months? What about clerks in supermarkets or drugstores—do they currently get anything extra?

By law, federal government workers are entitled to hazardous duty pay of no more than 25% of an employee’s regular pay rate. (The Office of Personnel Management website says helpfully that “Hazardous duty pay is payable to General Schedule (GS) employees covered by chapter 51 and subchapter III of chapter 53 of title 5, United States Code.”) 

The Department of Labor’s website says that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not address the topic of hazard pay except to require that it be included as part of a federal employee’s regular rate of pay in computing overtime payments. When posted to certain specified, risky places, Department of State employees are eligible for “danger pay,” currently $225 per month.

At these rates, Montand and his buddies would seem to have done pretty well.

On Twitter, a great many tweets signal support for #HazardPayNow. But if this is just a slogan and not a proposal with Elizabeth Warren-like specifics, the campaign isn’t likely to mean very much.

Dinner tonight will be veggies galore: Southern corn pudding, green beans (formerly frozen), coleslaw, corn muffins.

Entertainment: One episode of Jeopardy, one of The Twilight Zone, two episodes of Babylon Berlin, and one episode of Lovejoy.