“For far too many American workers, the pandemic has delivered a one-two punch of hardship. The American Voices Project, a national study of the ongoing crisis brought on by the coronavirus, recently interviewed a 26-year-old essential worker about the pandemic’s first punch: “I was working at a gas station, bringing home enough to get me by,” she said. “And then the Corona hit, my hours got cut, I was only working one or two days, sometimes no days, and then I was out of a job. It literally was hell … I was suffocating in bills.”
This lead punch, which is all about losing a job and struggling to pay bills, is unfortunately the stuff of every economic downturn. It’s the second punch that she took — a job-safety punch — that captures the profound change that makes this downturn so distinctive.
Because of her growing debt, she used her certification as a nursing assistant to land a job in one of the riskiest settings around: a nursing home. The job entails constant face-to-face interaction. “I’m given a group of people that I have to care for,” she said. “I’ll have to pass out breakfast or lunch trays, or they’re incontinent, so I’d be giving towels. It’s basic care.”
The risks weigh heavily on her: “We have to work and make money, but is it really worth us losing our life?”
This is a textbook description of what some philosophers and social scientists call a noxious contract. Because there are bills to pay, and because the downturn means that alternatives are in short supply (punch one), she had little alternative but to accept a contract that comes with real risk (punch two). Although noxious contracts are as old as market economies, the pandemic has put them on steroids. The key problem: We’ve suddenly created a vast group of risky occupations and thrust them on a labor force with fewer options.” . . .