The pandemic, work, and wages

by Emrys Westacott

Numerous reports have been compiled and articles written about the way that the covid pandemic has affected, or will affect, work: the way people do it, and their attitude towards it. But although certain general trends can be identified–e.g. the percentage of meetings held online rather than face-to-face has, naturally enough increased–people’s attitudes towards work and the workplace haven’t been affected in a uniform way.

Many of those who have been able to work more from home relish the advantages of doing so. They avoid time-consuming and often stressful commutes; they are able to integrate the business of ordinary living–going to the dentist, picking up a prescription, working when the kids are off school, etc.–with getting their work done. Hours can be more flexible, and the same goes for the dress code.

For others, though, working from home all the time has many drawbacks. Commuting may have a bad reputation, but for a surprising number of people it can be positively enjoyable. A Canadian study found that where the commute take less than 30 minutes more than 50% of respondents said that they enjoy their commute. And among people who cycle to work, almost a fifth said that the commute was the best part of their day.[1]

The flexibility and freedom that working from home allows is undeniably a plus. But for some, the stricter routine provided by a requirement to show up at the workplace by a certain time brings order to the day and to the use of one’s time.

Most of all, though, physical workplaces serve an important social function. Just as it is good for our physical and mental health to to get outside every day and to be in regular touch with the natural world, so it is beneficial for most of us to meet and interact with other people regularly. The relationships in question may not be the most important ones in our lives: those with our fellow workers often are not. The conversations we have don’t have to be especially intimate or stimulating. But they can still be meaningful: occasions for sorting out a problem, cracking a joke, complaining about something or someone, giving or taking advice, offering or receiving a compliment.

In theory, of course, all these things can be done at a distance, on the phone or through a screen. And these media are certainly adequate for taking care of simple issues. But there are many occasions and contexts where virtual interaction falls short (and I’m not only thinking of sex here). As a teacher, I ran virtual classes for the first year of the pandemic, and it was a pretty miserable experience. Some of that was no doubt due to my not being especially adept at teaching in this way. Having taught in a fairly traditional way for several decades, I probably failed to take advantage of some of the novel possibilities opened up by the virtual classroom. But I generally found that classroom discussions on Zoom lacked the immediacy and intensity of face-to-face discussions. One of the main reasons for this, I think,  is that humour doesn’t transplant into the virtual realm very well: laughter loses its contagious quality when everyone is muted.

So much for the way the pandemic has affected, for better or worse, people’s experience of work. How has it affected the way workers are viewed and treated? Here, the upshot is disappointing. The onset of the pandemic triggered an enhanced appreciation of “frontline” workers of every kind: those working in health care, nursing homes, retail, delivery, schools, restaurants, and so on. But expressions of appreciation have not led to significant changes in the pay structure through which the relative value of a person’s work gets expressed in material terms. True, the so-called “Great Resignation,” which saw millions of people quitting their jobs for various reasons in 2021, led to a labour shortage in some sectors, which in turn has seen wages rise. But overall, the wage increases for many frontline workers have been insignificant once inflation is taken into account. Meanwhile business owners, executives, and shareholders have made out like bandits, pocketing the lion’s share of the profits reaped during the past couple of years.

A Brookings Institution report analyzed how 22 companies, including Amazon, Starbucks, and Walmart, distributed their profits between January 2020 and October 2021. They found that during this period, the amount that went to the shareholders ($1.5 trillion) was 177 times greater than the amount received by their more than one million workers in extra pay. Moreover, because the frontline workers’ pay was low to begin with, and because of inflation, the real value of their pay increases in 20 out of the 22 companies studied was insufficient to bring the amount earned to a “living wage” of around $18 per hour.[2]

There is an inconsistency, or at least a severe tension, between our readiness to applaud the frontline workers’ invaluable contribution to the common good, and our acceptance of a system that fails to reward them for that contribution in a more tangible, meaningful way. The standard explanation, of course, is that wages are determined by market forces, the inexorable laws of supply and demand. There are more people able to drive delivery vans or provide home assistance to the elderly than there are people who are skilled at getting people to click on a link or stay a few seconds longer on a web page. That’s why the latter get paid more than the former.

It’s obviously a bit more complicated than that. After all, in the US there is currently a serious labour shortage in manufacturing, retail, education, and health services, yet wages in these sectors don’t seem to be rocketing skywards.[3] But the key point is that if, as a society, we wish to better align wage structures with our purported values–that is, ensure that what a person is paid relates to their social contribution–we cannot leave everything to market forces. As Ezra Klein observes in a recent New York Times article, markets determine winners and losers, but “societies have richer, more complex goals. To criticize markets for failing to achieve them is like berating a toaster because it never produces an oil painting.”

During the pandemic there have sometimes been encouraging signs that a greater appreciation of what poorly paid frontline workers contribute to the well-being of us all might lead to public policies designed to temper the way market forces operate in the labour market. Over the past two years, for instance, many US states have raised the minimum wage. In the end, though, even that kind of measure doesn’t cut very deep, and not just because the minimum wage is still not a living wage. The distribution of profits by major businesses mentioned earlier reveals a lot about our society’s real as opposed to its professed values. The frontline workers may receive our applause; but it is the already rich who continue to take the rewards.



[1] Joe Pinsker, “A mystery of our time: the people who enjoy commuting.” The Atlantic, March 17, 2016.

[2] Molly Kinder and Laura Strateler, “Frontline workers were excluded from pandemic windfalls. No wonder so many are forming unions.” Brookings Institution. May 4, 2022.

[3] U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Understanding America’s Labor Shortage: The most impacted industries.” Feb 2022.