Work and productivity in the time of Covid-19

I was talking with a business owner earlier this week who told me half his staff wanted to be laid off.  Why not?  They are worried about Covid-19.  They see their friends and family all off work – many furloughed on full salary and many expecting to receive enhanced benefits.  The problem is that this specific business owner needs the workers.

I heard elsewhere that the grocery firms and pharmacies cannot handle even a fraction of the the potential home delivery orders due to a lack of drivers.  A Walmart – anecdotally – was restricting deliveries to such that it would take 5-6 days to get your food delivered if you ordered today.

The agriculture sector across the country is demanding that it be allowed to bring in tens of thousands of foreign workers this year – as planned – to help with farming.  Other sectors fish processing, etc. are demanding the same thing, even as hundreds and hundreds of thousands are applying for EI each week.

John Maynard Keynes once said that unemployed people should be asked to dig holes one day and then fill them in the next.  Economists have parsed this statement in multiple ways but in my view one of the sides to this is that it speaks to the importance of work in a society.

How do we encourage work and productivity in the time of Covid-19?

Obviously the response to this question has to do with the timing of the quarantine.  If the economy if ‘offline’ for a few weeks that is one thing – now some are talking about July – maybe later?  If we think people will be idle for 3-4 months, that should change how we approach solutions.

A friend in the tech sector said many New Brunswick IT firms have seen their contract work all but stop since the quarantine.  OK.  Instead of paying programmers to not work (e.g. EI) put them all to work digitizing the economy.  Schools, businesses, – heck, how about teaching old people (remotely) how to use the Internet.  Use government dough to keep them in income, but tie it to productive work.

Why bring in agricultural workers – why not at least try to put our unemployed young people to work?

Marshall an army of vehicle drivers to massively reduce the number of people bumping into each other and sharing bugs at the grocery stores or pharmacies.  Sure they would need masks, gloves and other protocols but wouldn’t it be safer?

What other jobs could be done in the age of Covid-19?  Furloughed public sector workers should be given specific tasks.  Any business that can be done from home – should be done from home.

Can our manufacturers retool to produce needed pandemic-related products?

How about outdoor jobs?  Landscaping, picking up garbage, beautification – put an army to work – conforming to social distancing protocols, of course.

Why not some kind of incentive to encourage home renovations?  It would boost an economic sector and give bored home owners something productive to do with their time.

Finally, what about volunteerism?  I heard this week that donations are drying up across the country and – for more obvious reasons – volunteerism is collapsing.  This is a shame.  We must be able to productively volunteer and give in the time of Covid-19.  Why not call up (Zoom) some older shut ins or newcomers to Canada each week to lift their spirits?  Why not give to food banks – deliver to those in need – taking the necessary precautions.  In my opinion people should be even more generous with their time (and treasure) in a time like this.  While I agree with a massive government response, let’s not rob communities and individuals from the benefit of chipping in and giving back in a time of crisis.

We need to think about how we can use this time wisely.  We can come out the other side exhausted and broke as a society or we can come out with stronger social ties and some new things built that might never have gotten built otherwise.

5 thoughts on “Work and productivity in the time of Covid-19

  1. re: wanting to be laid off – don’t ignore the impact that losing childcare can have on working families. Probably the spouse making less money would be OK with getting laid off and staying home.

    re: home delivery drivers – they need to pay enough to make it worthwhile. Gas is cheap right now but wear and tear on a vehicle costs the same as ever. Insurance isn’t cheap (assuming you’re smart and insuring your car as a working car not a personal vehicle)

    Stick a little danger pay on top of that, who wants to expose themselves to strangers all day right now?

  2. I agree in principle that it doesn’t make sense to have industries lacking working while many sit home collecting EI or some other benefit. I guess it comes back to that same old question of how we match jobs to workers or vice versa. As a parent who is now trying to balance working from home (running the ‘business’ side of my own manufacturing business) and caring for three children, the absence of childcare options has to be taken into account – my work day has been reduced from 8 hours to 2-3 max, and I know I’m not alone in that. This will limit the number of people not working who are available to take on other work.

    I also question the wisdom of encouraging home renovations. While this would benefit our particular business, it would also create more need for construction workers to enter other people’s homes and/or encourage more people to head out to home improvement stores. It is, however, a great time to PLAN home renovations working remotely with interior designers and/or home builders and suppliers. Perhaps those with the means could put down a deposit to guarantee that they will be first up when normal work resumes? Small DIY projects are an option – as long as you already have the tools that you need.

    1. Emma, I should have clarified that I was referring to home renovations undertaken by the home owner (DIY). As for childcare, that too is a very important consideration but for those who can work and are relatively unencumbered I think the system should incentivize work – in farms, delivering food/medicines, working home-based jobs, etc.

      1. In that case, I agree! I have seen articles discouraging DIY projects that necessitate lots of extra trips to Home Depot etc, but you can argue both sides of that one. Have you figured out a way that we could match those not working with those looking for workers?

        1. I would prefer if Home Depot and Kent, Home Hardware – would also deliver to residences. As for the work matching I think the provincial government should just set up a temporary job matching service and use federal and provincial income support programs to support it. For summer students, I would ask PETL to encourage all SEED and other summer job programs to migrate to those jobs that can be done within the context of social distancing protocols but I would have as a goal to get as many of these students working as possible.

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