How American workers are faring after two years of pandemic turmoil

Labor Day this year comes after a pandemic-induced rollercoaster of historically high unemployment followed by very low unemployment numbers. What has this meant for workers themselves? Maximillian Alvaraz of the Real News Network and the Working People podcast and Tsedal Neely, professor at Harvard Business School, join Lisa Desjardins to talk about this complicated moment for American workers.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This Labor Day comes after some of the most tumultuous years in the history of the American worker, a pandemic rollercoaster have historically high unemployment, and now quite low unemployment numbers. Tonight, we look at what that means for workers themselves.

    We invited some of you over Twitter to tell us if you feel secure in your jobs. In the answers, we saw stress and exhaustion, people who say they are struggling like this woman who said she is seeking to retire soon after years under pressure, or this one who said she's carrying more burden than she expected to at this age. But others told us they're enjoying working from home and finding satisfying opportunities.

    To talk about this complicated moment, I'm joined by Maximillian Alvarez of The Real News Network, and host of the Working People podcast and Tsedal Neeley, professor at the Harvard Business School.

    Focusing on the workers themselves. Here are two powerful tweets that we received. A local school worker wrote COVID relief has ended the school is understaffed and overwhelmed. The stress is unbearable. But a librarian told us even though quote, we don't eat out much, don't travel, I'm more satisfied, I get to play and experiment.

    We want to talk about both the good and the bad. But Maximillian Alvarez, let's start with you, and which kinds of workers are struggling the most right now?

  • Maximillian Alvarez, Editor-In-Chief, The Real News Network:

    Well, you know, it's hard to say who's struggling the most. But I think what I really want to underscore for people is that people are struggling across different industries for many of the same problems. As you mentioned in that tweet, I really want to stress for people that chronic and deliberate understaffing is probably the most common complaint that I hear from workers in retail and service from education workers. We're starting a new school year we have been hemorrhaging teachers, because we've been underpaying, underresourcing them, vilifying them relentlessly in the media. And now we're running out of teachers.

    So that is very much a crisis, but it is also happening in healthcare. Healthcare has been hemorrhaging staff after two and a half years of the pandemic and we have no real plan to sort of replace all these lost workers.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're hearing now, Tsedal Neeley, about understaffing stress on workers across the board. Where do we say workers finding more satisfaction, more flexibility. Now that's something you study.

  • Tsedal Neeley, Professor, Harvard Business School:

    You know, one of the biggest things that came out of the global pandemic is remote work, or remote work revolution, as we've seen is the grandest experiments where people have had the capability to work from home.

    And more recently, a hybrid of work has been introduced more and more in companies where people have both in person and remote experiences, that has increased job satisfaction and extraordinary ways increased productivity, increase the ability for people to have work life integration in ways that we've never seen in this country since the 1950s.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's interesting, we did get a tweet about that. This person wrote, I've seen hiring policies change people to work completely remotely, more flexibility. All of these things have made it possible to hire the best people for the physicians and better pay too.

    You know, something else we noticed, I want both of you to pay attention to in these is sort of talking especially about unionization. Here are two more personal stories revolving around that first, tweet, in this that we had a heating and air conditioning tech write us that since they joined the Union six months ago, quote, pay is almost double. And they wrote off finally have a little more room to breathe. Here's the other, quote, I worked for a major railroad and we are about to strike. That person wrote, we work to the point of exhaustion.

    Maximillian, union had been losing workers for some decades now. But this speaks to that exhaustion factor. What is this moment right now for labor unions?

  • Maximillian Alvarez:

    It's a really pivotal moment because again, we have a tight labor market, the likes of which we may never see again in this century. The boomers are retiring out a lot of people died or got sick and debilitated from COVID. And also, as I aforementioned, you know, a lot of industries have been slashing their workforce.

    So, you know, we've been hearing this no one wants to work narrative, but in fact, if you hear the workers side of it, you'll hear folks at Chipotle, at Starbucks, at, you know, a school in Minneapolis or on the class one freight railroads, you'll hear all of these folks screaming, we don't have enough people. We can't even hire and retain people because we're being treated so poorly.

    A lot of the country probably doesn't realize that we are closer right now to a national rail shutdown on the freight railroads than we've been in my lifetime. And because workers have been running to the ground, and the profit maximizing cost cutting decisions from corporate CEOs has ruined the supply chain and turned what was once a good job into a miserable experience. It's a real crisis.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Tsedal, we've been talking about something that spans different kinds of work, different stresses and different kinds of satisfaction. But you've also noticed some gaps in gender, and generation that's happening right now with workers. Can you talk about that?

  • Tsedal Neeley:

    Absolutely, it's kind of a moment in time where there's fierce divide between employers and employees, particularly around the return to office. Those who are leaders of companies, oftentimes, people of a certain age, have a perception of what the best way of work is. And oftentimes, they prefer the butts and seats, command and control.

    On the other hand, employees who are digital natives, who are much more savvy, who can go between the in person and the digital prefer that disproportionately and so this gap is massive. And I actually don't know how it's going to get resolved, unless there's some kind of compromise, particularly from the sides of leaders, because we've been through the biggest lesson of our lifetimes. And well-being is another thing that people are thinking about caring about a lot, a lot of well-being issues.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to ask both of you as we wrap this up, what do you think is most misunderstood about workers in America, any kind of workers and where we're at and Tsedal Neeley, let's start with you.

  • Tsedal Neeley:

    They want autonomy. They want control in their lives. They want to be able to contribute and produce for their organizations in a way that also works for them from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint, from a family standpoint.

    So the kind of discontent that we're seeing with the push for return to Office is because there's this loss of control, loss of autonomy, loss of integration in their lives that they so want to maintain.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Maximillian Alvarez.

  • Maximillian Alvarez:

    You know, I think that the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged workers understanding of their own worth, because for a brief moment, this system was forced to admit how much it needs us and all of us were able to finally recognize how much we and our fellow workers are essential. And I think that that has had a lot to do with the growing labor movement in this country from the unionization wave to the strikes we've been seeing, to record numbers of people quitting their jobs. But the backlash has been just as fears the bosses do not like this worker militancy, and they want to put all of us back into our place.

    So I think that you are seeing a real struggle between working people and a system that admits that it values our labor as essential but not our lives and working people are pushing back against that and saying we are worth more and we're going to fight for it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Maximillian Alvarez of The Real News Network, and the Working People podcast, and Tsedal Neeley, Harvard University's Business School. Thank you to you both.

  • Maximillian Alvarez:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment