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Rutgers expert discusses implications of pandemic on workforce

Adrienne Eaton, distinguished professor and dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations, said some workplaces may continue to have employees work from home after the pandemic. – Photo by Courtesy of Adrienne Eaton

The changes to workplace structures amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have resulted in disproportionate impacts on various groups and could have lasting effects on labor in America, said Adrienne Eaton, distinguished professor and dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations.

She said people are either currently unemployed, working in dangerous conditions as essential workers or working from home. While there are both benefits and drawbacks to having less of a boundary between home and work, Eaton said this lifestyle is not sustainable in the long-run for those with caretaking and home responsibilities.

“I think parents of very young children are spending more time in their office because they just can't get things done,” she said. “There are funny videos of kids coming in while people are teaching classes or in the middle of meetings, but actually that's pretty stressful for people.”

Eaton said caretaking responsibilities have caused many people, especially women, to leave the workforce. Approximately 1.1 million people left the labor force in September, and more than 860,000 of them were women, she said.

“There (are) some early studies that are showing real struggles when children are not in school, and that is just disproportionately falling on women,” Eaton said. “There's a lot of women dropping out of the labor force altogether because they're just not able to manage, and I think that's at all ... skill and income levels.”

She said that while the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was active, it made a large difference in mitigating increases in income inequality caused by the pandemic. Now, the dim prospects of receiving another rescue package will be a problem for struggling individuals and businesses, she said.

“I do want to add that undocumented immigrants didn't get any of (the rescue package),” Eaton said. “Think about the women who clean homes, for instance, many of whom are undocumented immigrants ... (whose savings) were dried up, and they had no social safety net, no access to unemployment, no ... food stamps. They had to rely on charity basically, and that's really scary.”

Many of the changes that accompany working from home may be permanent, she said. For instance, companies have been closing their offices, which may be a major concern for large cities that rely on people coming in to work for its local businesses to do well, Eaton said.

She also said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed to hold employers accountable for maintaining workplace safety. Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) recently issued an executive order that will enforce required health and safety standards in order to better protect New Jersey workers.

Eaton said she expects President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to address this issue, though he will have to contend with a Congress that may not support his efforts. She said the U.S. needs to provide broader unemployment relief, subsidize child and elderly care and prioritize plans for reopening schools.

“A lot of these problems (were) ... there before (COVID-19), and they'll be there after,” Eaton said. “They're just really exacerbated with the current situation.”

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