At the end of February, the United States’ unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent — its lowest in over 50 years. Just two months later, some economists predict the number of jobless Americans may easily eclipse the worst of the Great Depression.
As the country navigates unprecedented economic crisis, over 500 participants tuned in via Zoom Wednesday night to listen to five Industrial Labor Relations professors discuss how COVID-19 might impact the labor market in coming months.
Co-hosted by Emily Blanchard ’21 and Hanni Wiegand ’22, two student workers in the ILR Office of Student Services, the panel allowed professors to present how their fields of research align with the workplace issues many are currently facing.
“The primary purpose of this panel is to present the research and hypothesis of professors about the impact of COVID-19 on the labor market,” Wiegand said.
Alex Colvin, dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, facilitated the discussion while also weighing in on various points. He has taken a particular interest in recent worker protests, which in past weeks have included high-profile strikes from Amazon and gig workers upset with poor conditions.
“Over time in America, we have seen a long decline of the strike as a weapon used by workers to protect their interests,” Colvin said. “In this pandemic situation, we have seen a number of walkouts of workers in different situations.”
As an economic historian, Prof. George Boyer, industrial labor relations, has explored how economic shocks affect labor markets, as well as how governments deal with such shocks.
Based on data from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic — estimated to have killed 20 million to 50 million worldwide — Boyer cautioned individuals against returning back to normalcy before the virus has run its course.
“The COVID virus is likely to come in waves,” Boyer said. “We should not get overly optimistic and let our guard down when the number of cases declines in the next few weeks and months.”
Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial labor relations, sees the pandemic as yet another opportunity to analyze the reasons behind the “systemic nature” of inequality within the United States.
“It is essential that we have information about the realities of the disproportionately negative impact of COVID19 on communities of color,” Lieberwitz said. “We must use this moment to either commit ourselves or to recommit ourselves to social change for the present and — as importantly — in the future.”
Nellie Brown, director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs for the Worker Institute at the ILR School, said that the pandemic has also revealed a need for “new blood” in an aging health and safety workforce.
“We have allowed our supply chains to become completely attenuated,” Brown said, referencing the current personal protective equipment shortages in the United States. “The raw ingredients are coming from China, so everything we are trying to get from overseas has become a difficulty.”
Prof. Rosemary Batt, industrial labor relations, also noted that financial actors often seek to profit in times of crisis, comparing coronavirus fallout to the 2008 recession.
“Unless we correct the policies and really monitor these actors, we will get increased inequality coming out of this crisis,” Batt said.
Russell Weaver, an economic geographer with the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, said that the uncertainty surrounding job prospects will make it difficult for graduates of the Class of 2020 to land an entry level position. For that reason, he encouraged students looking for work to consider joining grassroots campaigns.
“Trying to make a prediction about the job market right now, given where we are in the timeline, is a very risky position,” Weaver said. “There is going to be a lot of uncertainty.”