If COVID is not quite a crisis that tries men’s souls, it’s certainly trying the patience of all of us. And, as many have noted, it’s laying bare essential questions about the employee-employer relationship. Most starkly, it has highlighted the consequences of the gig economy, where workers are often independent contractors with no unemployment benefits for financial security, and no medical benefits for health security. Many regular employees often lack these benefits as well.
Beyond essential jobs that have to be done, many people still must work (or desperately still want to work) to have money for food and housing. And when sick, many workers have no health insurance to either seek treatment or testing for the virus. Emergency measures have addressed some of these issues, but long term, what’s on the other side of COVID? There are, several possibilities, including: (1) go back to how it was before (more and more gig workers, and shrinking benefits from their employers for many more), (2) make employers treat gig workers more like regular employees, and also provide more comprehensive unemployment benefits to all employees, (3) establish broader government programs, like the much-debated Medicare for All, or Andrew Yang’s guaranteed income, or (4) some combination of the above.
Which approach will we choose, both nationally, and at the state level here in Minnesota? The answer likely won’t emerge until the present crisis is more or less behind us, or at least enough under control that we can take a longer-term perspective. But here are a few thoughts on the questions we’ll face.
- Gig employment does offer workers flexibility that many want, but the current system has numerous problems, as starkly revealed by COVID.
- Employer-provided benefits (like health care), and benefits tied to employment (like unemployment payments) create both administrative and financial burdens for employers. Off-loading them to the government could benefit both employers and employees.
- Many Americans are leery of government programs, and prefer the kind of private solutions we’ve developed over the years. For example, people worry that a change to universal medical coverage could mean they’d have to change doctors.
- Market solutions, like a completely private health insurance system, don’t always work because many people don’t have the financial ability to buy insurance. Indeed, the existence of programs like Medicare and Medicaid are already a partial response to this reality.
- Globalization has put American employees in competition with low wage foreign labor, which along with a related decline in labor unions and automation has driven down both wages and benefits for many workers.
- Broader government programs would be expensive and would require tax increases, which raises questions about how much the ultra rich should pay toward programs that address problems suffered primarily by the less rich.
Sadly, our current partisan division may mean that of the innovative possible outcomes we could embrace after COVID, we’ll instead default to what we had before. That would leave all the issues listed above mostly untouched. Far better if employment relationships could evolve, perhaps by some blend of a more cooperative employer-employee paradigm coupled with government programs that could benefit both employers, by eliminating existing admin and financial headaches; and employees by providing back up from the government when employers can’t or won’t.
This pandemic is teaching us many things: let’s hope we find a way to improve the employer-employee dynamic that benefits us all.