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Gone in plain sight

The world economy has never shut down this fast. Within a matter of weeks, the lethal effects of the coronavirus have literally brought America to a halt. Isolated Pennsylvanians are discovering new employment terms. Who are “essential” and who are not? The jobless rate precipitously grows daily. Following the stock market should now come with a health warning. The only thing one can predict is the unpredictability of what tomorrow brings.

Today’s front-line superheroes wear scrubs, delivery uniforms, and butchers’ aprons. Police officers and firefighters continue to respond first, to our most urgent emergencies. Grocery store workers, utility workers, and trash collectors are taken for granted no more. A mantra of organized labor, PA AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale and I share – “there is dignity in all work, and nobility in all workers.”

Countless examples of labor and management working together to best relieve the burdens on employees, businesses, and the communities are everywhere. However, there is a less obvious, unintended consequence of this pandemic. Practicing social distancing, can lead to further, and potentially permanent, job losses through automation long after the quarantines and panic buying subsides.

Self-checkouts for example, have always cost jobs, and save consumers nothing. Under the auspices of public safety and health, aimed at both the consumer and the cashier, some employers may implement “temporary” polices asking all patrons to use the self-checkout. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, shoppers can become so accustomed to using the automation, it becomes the new normal, casually replacing the traditional checkout lane with more automated checkouts right before our eyes.

As schools are closed, cyber and distant learning has increased exponentially. This cannot be allowed to replace our public education system. Our teachers, who have already been working under slashed budgets, still manage to be among the best educators in America and are now threatened “on-line.” They deserve better, and our children deserve better.

We have known for years, turnpike toll collectors’ jobs would terminate in the Fall of 2021, but just may have come to an end now. I myself, worked in the manufacturing sector and witnessed firsthand the desolation automation had on our industry. While automation will never cease, we cannot allow this pandemic to exacerbate the inevitable, especially under the convenient auspice of public health.

Education, transportation, construction, healthcare, service, manufacturing, energy, communication and legal amenities are not immune. What does not have to be inevitable, are workers being the casualties. Retraining for jobs that exist and compensate equal to those lost, is the only “just transition.” Workers demand that. And policymakers must deliver that.

The shocking loss of lives, a frightening illness spreading with lightning speed, the overwhelming slashing of jobs, an economy that is being rocked to its foundation, and a national psyche that is being tested like most of us have never seen before, make it difficult to imagine, but this too shall pass.

Recovery may not come as quickly as we all would hope. Still, we must pay attention now, so our recovery will be complete and inclusive for all. This is no time for downsizing by removing humans from the equation. America can be better. Pennsylvania will be better. But only if workers and their respective professions are treated as the economic drivers that they are, and remembering that what one earns, does not necessarily translate to the importance of that job. Whenever normal returns, consider what Rick and I share — “there is dignity in all work, and nobility in all workers.”

Frank Snyder is secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

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