By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist
As fate would have it, California’s coronavirus battle flag was hoisted just as CalMatters was vacating its temporary offices and moving into permanent new quarters near the Capitol.
Our physical trappings — files, equipment and so forth — made the move, but our managers decided, prudently, that we staffers should more or less isolate ourselves in our abodes. For more than a week, therefore, we writers have been working remotely while our new offices remain virtually and indefinitely empty.
We are fortunate because what we do does not depend on customers walking in the door. Business operations that require personal contact, such as retail stores and restaurants, are shutting down throughout the state and their employees are often being cast adrift.
Working life as Californians knew it has changed very radically and very quickly, leaving one wondering whether it’s just a temporary adjustment or the harbinger of a more permanent alteration.
By happenstance, too, when the virus crisis hit, Californians were already engaged in a debate of sorts about employment because the state Supreme Court and the Legislature had tightened up the legal test of who could continue working as non-employee contractors and who must become payroll employees.
However, they upset the lives of thousands — no one really knows how many — of Californians who preferred to work independently, including freelance writers, musicians and artists. Before it adjourned indefinitely due to the crisis, the Legislature had begun the laborious process of revising last year’s sweeping Assembly Bill 5.
Last week, the University of California published an online article that explored the underlying uncertainty about how workplace disruptions will play out in the longer run.
Edward Lempinen, a writer for UC-Berkeley’s media office, interviewed UC scholars about the issue and wrote:
“The workplace is a defining focus for many Americans, a place where working people spend much of their lives earning an income, exercising creativity and connecting with colleagues and customers. This health emergency is sending shock waves across the working world, an impact with no precedent in modern times and no quick end in sight.”
Lempinen focused on “a jarring new perspective on the gap between the working poor and workers in more secure positions.”
Saru Jayaraman, director of Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center, told Lempinen that millions of workers are “not making enough money to stay home, even if they got minimum wage for every hour that they’re off sick. It’s not enough to pay rent and bills.”
Clark Kellogg, a lecturer at the Haas School of Business, said, “For white-collar workers, orders to work from home will raise a host of questions about motivation, productivity and the impact of isolation. But it may also inspire workplace innovation.”
“As it goes on longer and longer, there will be a rush to do workarounds,” Kellogg said. “When what we usually do doesn’t work anymore, we invent something new. And that innovation is usually done by line workers who just have to get the job done. They get out the proverbial baling wire and duct tape and make something happen.”
A teacher can work from home, Jesse Rothstein, director of Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, told Lempinen, “But you can’t tell the store cashier to work from home. You can’t tell the food service worker to work from home. It’s disproportionately the lowest income people, and they can’t live for a couple months without income.”
Defining work legally is a matter for the courts and lawmakers. Now we also must, due to a medical crisis, define it existentially.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.
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