America’s invisible heroes stay at their posts; let’s not replace them with robots

Essential personnel

Every crisis births heroes, but the coronavirus pandemic will open our eyes to a new kind of heroism. Check that: Heroism that had become dangerously invisible to most of us in recent years.

Many workers with unglamorous jobs are rising to occasion in the age of coronavirus — Target employees, grocery shelf stockers, food delivery cyclists, truck drivers. We’re going to need them to remain “at their posts” to ride out the next couple of months. We’re seeing incredible, “old-fashioned” work ethic on display for all. Loyalty. Honor. Duty. It’s awesome to witness. Think of the constant risks taken by delivery workers who visit several dozen strangers’ homes all day, every day. Delivering dinner, sure, but more important, delivering a small bit of normalcy at time when everything else is upside down. For families with parents trying to manage teleworking and e-learning on a crowded kitchen table all day, dinner delivery is indeed an act of heroism.

I’m currently following the plight of Dan Nemeth, a cold food truck driver who brings meat and other perishables to independent stores in Ohio and Pennsylvania. When I last checked in with Nancy, his wife, Dan was on his 9th straight day of driving. As hourly limits have been lifted, he logged 72 hours on the road last week. Nancy is making sure he sleeps once in a while and takes plenty of vitamins.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Nancy told me.

Dan’s a real hero. We should all pray the Dan’s of America stay healthy right now.

But as we pray, the question we should ask ourselves is: after the crisis has passed, how soon might Dan find himself replaced by a robot driver?

When the dust clears on this era of small and large acts of heroism by traditionally “invisible” workers, will corporate America see clear to return the loyalty, honor and duty it has received? Or will be go back to business “as usual.”

I write as usual in quotes because there is nothing usual about the decline of the social contract that we’ve witnessed during the past several decades in corporate America. Not long ago, Henry Ford helped usher in the modern era by promoting the basic notion that workers should be able to afford the goods their company makes, and a full-time worker should be able to afford a home near their company plant. Today, median-level wage workers have no chance to buy a median-priced home in most American cities.

Even worse, America is hurtling madly into the age of the gig worker. To be sure, the gig economy has created opportunities for some — as a full-time freelancer, I have benefitted — but for the most part, it’s a trap. Bean counters at corporations have long fantasized about the benefits of a fully contingent workforce.  Contingent workers — a fancy way of saying fully disposable — are employed at the company’s whim.  Companies don’t care for gig workers at all. No health insurance, no predictable work hours, not even the promise of a paycheck tomorrow. Loyalty? Honor? Duty? These are old-fashioned notions for which there is no column in any bean-counter’s spreadsheet. Companies feel they owe workers nothing beyond today’s pay.

To many, that seemed sensible — it’s just business and so on. Now we see why society depends on social contracts. If we want truck drivers to put in 72 hours a week during a crisis, if we want people to stock grocery store shelves when we are telling everyone else not to leave the homes, then we’re going to have to offer them something more than time-and-a-half to make sure they keep showing up at their posts.

In the book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains the difference between social norms and market norms.  You show up at a friend’s house for dinner with a bottle of wine (a social norm), not $23.78 to pay for dinner (a market norm). For too long, U.S. companies have gotten away with blending social norms (really, if it’s just a sniffle you should come to work) and market norms (Sorry, you’re laid off).  In the post coronavirus era, that just won’t cut it any longer.

If you see someone showing up for duty, thank them, and tip them if you can. But we can’t forget these acts of heroism when the coronavirus dust settles.  We must make sure employers live up to their end of the bargain. That means sick leave, generous child care help, predictable pay and hours. Above all, it means loyalty returned for loyalty.

(This story was updated after Dan gave me permission to use his name)


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About Bob Sullivan 1477 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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