US workers face an unequal future when virus recedes

Low-paid workers in US industries like leisure, hospitality and food services were laid off in such large numbers their absence skewed average wages upwards. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 01 June 2020

US workers face an unequal future when virus recedes

  • Unemployment is now at a level not seen in since the Great Depression nearly a century ago

WASHINGTON: As the coronavirus worked its way across the US, it cleaved the country’s workforce in two: Those who have the ability to work from home, and those who do not.

From baristas to hotel workers to tourism operators, people whose job requires them to show up in-person were among the hardest hit in the waves of layoffs, and also those on the low end of the US pay scale.

Unemployment is now at a level not seen in since the Great Depression nearly a century ago, and moving higher, while the coronavirus is expected to threaten the country for months to come, factors analysts fear will only serve to deepen inequality for workers in the world’s largest economy.

“People who are well-off and highly skilled and work from home are going to demand that their employers make accommodations for them,” said Jesse Rothstein, a former chief economist at the Labor Department who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. But “lower skilled workers ... are taking on more risk without more pay.”

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has described the pandemic as “a great increaser of inequality,” but experts say that is not inevitable, particularly if Congress passes new stimulus measures to support battered businesses and consumers.

“Every single cleavage we had before is widening,” said Claudia Sahm, a former principal economist with the Federal Reserve who is now with the Washington Center for Economic Growth.

“We have an opportunity to do something better than what we were doing before, but it will not just happen. It has to be a policy effort.”

When the coronavirus arrived, the US economy had a tight labor market, with an unemployment rate near a historic low of 3.5 percent in February, while long-stagnant wages were just starting to rise. Yet the job market was not as healthy as it appeared.

The US Private Sector Job Quality Index (JQI) — which uses government employment statistics to gauge the balance between non-supervisory jobs with decent pay and those without — has been charting downwards for years.

In February, the JQI was back near its all-time low reached in March 2012 as many of the jobs being created paid below the mean weekly wage, according to the index compiled by a consortium of academics and researchers.

And a study late last year from the Brookings Institution found 44 percent of US workers qualify as “low wage,” with median annual earnings of just $18,000 a year.

When the pandemic hit and sent the unemployment rate to 14.7 in April and the economy into an almost-certain recession, low-paid workers in industries like leisure, hospitality and food services were laid off in such large numbers their absence skewed average wages upwards.

While government data show most consider their layoffs to be temporary, Michael Weber, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, warned that if businesses close or scale back staffing, job seekers will be forced to compete against each other, driving wages lower, as is typical in recession job markets.

Grocery store chain Kroger, e-commerce giant Amazon and several fast food companies have announced massive hirings since the pandemic hit, but offer no safe haven.

“Those are the very jobs that are under criticism over the last few years given that they pay unreasonably low wages,” Weber said. And those type of jobs “come hand-in-hand with a more precarious income situation.”

Robert Hockett, a law professor at Cornell University who is a principal researcher on the JQI, said job seekers could demand risk premiums at workplaces where they face exposure to the coronavirus, or take equity stakes in struggling companies to help keep them afloat.

The Fed reported this week that Boston area employers were giving workers temporary pay increases of up to 30 percent, in part to compensate for the increased risk and hold onto their employees.

But unemployed workers could end up forced to accept whatever jobs they can find, particularly if Congress fails to extend the small business loans and unemployment benefits temporarily expanded in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act approved in March.

“We’re kind of on a tightrope or a knife’s edge at this moment,” Hockett said in an interview.

President Donald Trump’s administration has been lukewarm toward further spending on aid for workers, predicting the coronavirus will be defeated and a strong economic rebound starting in July, even as many economists remain skeptical of a rapid, V-shaped recovery.

“It’s all going to ride on how desperate workers are,” Hockett said, “And that’s going to ride on public policy positions.”


First tanker to load crude at Libya’s Hariga port since January

Updated 58 sec ago

First tanker to load crude at Libya’s Hariga port since January

  • The Delta Hellas tanker will enter Libya’s Hariga port on Wednesday and load 1 million barrels of oil from the port’s storage

BENGHAZI/LONDON: An oil tanker is expected to load crude at Libya’s Marsa el-Hariga terminal this week, the first since a blockade by eastern forces in January slashed the OPEC member’s oil production to a trickle.
The Delta Hellas tanker will enter Libya’s Hariga port on Wednesday and load 1 million barrels of oil from the port’s storage, the Arabian Gulf Oil Co. which operates the port said in a statement.
Eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar said last week his forces would lift their eight-month blockade of oil exports, which depressed the OPEC member’s production down to around 100,000 barrel per day (bpd).
Trading arm of China’s Sinopec , Unipec- which prior to the blockade was one of the main lifters of Mesla and Sarir crude grades from the terminal- booked the tanker, two trading sources said.
Unipec also booked the Marlin Shikoku tanker, which according to Refinitiv Eikon shipping data is expected to arrive at Hariga on Thursday.
This comes as the National Oil Corporation (NOC) seeks to gradually boost production, with output expected to rise to around 260,000 bpd next week.
Before the blockade, Libya produced around 1.2 million bpd, or more than 1% of global production.
NOC, which said it would only resume at ports and oilfields that are free of military presence, has so far announced oil export resumption from the Hariga, Brega and Zueitina terminals.