COVID-19 is widening the wealth gap by dividing the American workforce

by | PEACE+JUSTICE

Work is changing. More than four out of five of American workers who are currently working from home want to continue working remotely at least some of the time when the pandemic ends. But while the pandemic has created new opportunities for some workers, it’s hurting others and expanding the wealth gap by introducing serious divisions in the U.S. workforce.

The inequity of work during the COVID-19 pandemic

In general, office-based workers quickly embraced the flexibility of a work-from-home lifestyle at the start of the pandemic. Despite the limitations for collaboration and social interaction, the vast majority of them want to keep working from home indefinitely. 

Recent data from the Pew Research Center showed that 4 in 10 workers say their jobs can mostly be performed from home. But while that means more than 60 million Americans can (in theory) shift to permanent remote work scenarios, a much larger number of workers have jobs that cannot be performed remotely. 

And the majority of them are lower-income employees: 76% of low-income workers say their jobs cannot be done remotely — significantly higher than the 63% of middle-income workers and 44% of high-income workers who report the inability to work remotely.

When you consider factors like race and education, the divisions become even more stark: 

  • Fewer than 1 in 5 Black workers and 1 in 6 Hispanic workers are able to work from home
  • Only 23% of workers without a college degree say they can perform their work from home
  • More than two-thirds of undocumented immigrants work jobs that are considered essential to fighting COVID-19 — jobs that require them to work outside the home

The inability to work remotely has consequences that go beyond sweatpants and midday walk breaks, especially during the pandemic. In many cases, those consequences translate to real-dollar costs that make it difficult for workers to make ends meet, let alone build wealth.

The financial costs of work inequality in a pandemic

Work-from-home opportunities increase proportionate to income and education, even during a global pandemic. Right now, the most obvious cost of working outside the home is a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus and a greater likelihood of contracting COVID-19. But working outside the home also has several financial implications for lower-income employees:

  • Loss of income: Businesses in the hospitality, food service and other industries have closed their doors due to the pandemic. Many have closed permanently. Given the prevalence of low-wage jobs in these industries, it’s easy to see how the loss of income due to COVID-19 has disproportionately affected lower-income Americans. Additionally, lower-income families now struggle to access social services that are intended to supplement their typical incomes.
  • Increased healthcare and PPE costs: The threat of COVID creates added prevention and treatment costs for American families. People who work outside the home spend more on personal protective equipment (PPE) than their work-from-home peers. If they’re exposed to the virus, they may also have to spend out of pocket for testing. And if a family member contracts COVID and requires hospitalization, medical expenses can easily run into the thousands of dollars.
  • Inadequate technology: The COVID-19 pandemic brought the technology gap into sharp focus. Most Americans take internet access for granted. But a shocking 19 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband service and threshold speeds. Without access to internet service, it’s impossible for employees to work from home, even if their jobs allow it.
  • Limited access to education: Although strategies vary by state and district, most schools have transitioned to remote learning at some point in the pandemic. Many districts took steps to equip students with the required device, but 17% of U.S. students don’t have internet at home. Combined with the other challenges of remote learning, a lack of internet access restricts students’ ability to learn — which severely limits their ability to attend college and eventually land higher paying jobs.

COVID-19 and the spirituality of work

Across religions, work is considered a holy thing. It’s the consecration of our efforts to the Divine and an opportunity to serve as co-participants in the act of creation. So, in many ways, the inability to work prohibits our participation in a spiritually vital activity.

The inability to work also results in a loss of dignity. We receive personal and even spiritual satisfaction from a job well done. And by providing for those we care about, we practice generosity, self-sacrifice and other personal disciplines that are essential to a spiritual life.

Employees who are forced to work outside the home can still access the spiritual benefits of work. But the division of work and its impact on wealth create other spiritual consequences, not only for today’s workers, but for future generations.

 

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