COVID-19 has upended the workplace, leaving millions of Americans juggling childcare and Zoom meetings while working from home. Millions more are risking their lives as part of the low-wage essential workforce, while nearly 8 percent of workers throughout the country remain unemployed. 

Adrienne Eaton, dean and Distinguished Professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, is tackling these and other issues as a member of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s Future of Work Task Force. Eaton, who also serves as president of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), discusses how COVID-19 is affecting workers and their unions.

What is happening to the structure of work?

Adrienne Eaton
Adrienne Eaton, dean and Distinguished Professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

Artificial intelligence, automation and the gig economy were transforming the workplace long before the pandemic. COVID-19 adds a new layer of complexity. If large numbers of Americans continue working from home, the broken wall between work and home life will crumble even further. This is proving to be especially difficult for women, who handle a disproportionate amount of childcare and housework. I expect there will be greater attention paid to the need for high-quality child care options, paid leave and flexibility in careers.

What are you seeing in terms of income inequality?

It’s worse now than before. The continued strength of the stock market has largely insulated the wealthy, while the hardship of unemployment has fallen mostly on the poor and low skilled.

Many of the jobs we’ve deemed essential – in health care, food service, the food supply chain, retail and elsewhere – are largely filled by low-wage workers. In the short term, we desperately need another relief package of extended and enlarged unemployment benefits.

Union membership has been declining for decades. Will COVID-19 reverse the trend?

First off, it will be interesting to see where organizing takes place. Online organizing and virtual protests are on the rise, especially now that so many Americans are working from home.

I think we are seeing a shift from the traditional, economic heavy model of collective bargaining to a grassroots movement that aligns social justice groups, advocacy groups and workers. The Fight for $15 campaign, advocating for a $15 minimum wage, is one example of how coalitions can push for a shared goal outside the framework of a union contract. However, a contract remains the gold standard for worker protection globally.

Where does the fight for racial justice fit in?

There are two schools of thought—Critical Race Theory and intersectionality—that suggest racial, gender and other non-economic identities should be at the center of organizing and mobilizing workers. The more traditional approach continues to rely on work-based, class identity.

I think we will see a growing number of movements that draw on a more intersectional approach to push a broader array of demands, including higher wages and stronger workplace health and safety protections, but also racial justice in and out of the workplace.