Distributed work

Who’s left out of the distributed work economy


Published on May 26, 2020

Mornings consist of sorting through emails, responding to messages, and having meetings on Zoom. Lunch was delivered by DoorDash because there was no time to get groceries or cook. And a busy workweek means errands are run by someone from TaskRabbit. 

This lifestyle might sound familiar to those who work in tech or whose work has been enabled by technology. Whether you’re a social media manager, UX designer, writer, engineer, etc, you’re someone who can do your work from just about anywhere, with just a laptop and WiFi connection. The San Francisco Bay Area in particular has a high concentration of workers in the professional and business services sector compared to the rest of the country, with more than 540,000 jobs by the end of 2019

In response to a growing global pandemic, the tech sector has been leading the charge in the move to remote work. Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook were among the first companies to ask its employees to work from home starting in early March. It’s been relatively easy for the tech giants to adjust to the new remote work landscape because of the nature of their work. In fact, work from home is something many techies already do. More than half of information workers worked from home at least part of the time before the pandemic, compared to 6 percent of service workers and 29 percent of Americans in total, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That goes to show that tech is only a small part of the story. There are over 100 different industries and each has its own way of working—from how work gets done and who does it to what it looks like and the culture surrounding it. As this global pandemic has evolved, the way that it has impacted people in different jobs and industries has varied considerably. While media coverage has tended to sort the economic fallout into haves and have-nots, the reality is more nuanced. Many restaurant and food service workers, for instance, have been forced to pivot to delivery jobs. Retail workers who’ve lost their jobs need to look to other industries entirely. Meanwhile, healthcare and other frontline workers have seen their hours rise along with the increased risk of going to work.

Everyone faces different levels of uncertainty, both financially and in terms of opportunity and choice. It’s inevitable that the way we work will be transformed, with impact lasting far beyond the duration of this pandemic. Every industry has its own unique challenges, and with these come different ways to navigate and adapt.

Restaurant: the industry where cash is king

The 2018 National Dining Trends Survey by Zagat shows that Americans dine out on average of 5.9 times per week, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s nearly once a day. The restaurant industry is one of the most heavily trafficked, making restaurant and food workers essential in a time of crisis. But in an industry where cash is king, it’s also the most directly impacted economically.

Sister and brother Nadia and Paolo Giusti run Firenze by Night in San Francisco. When the restaurant opened in 1987, it was one storefront with their dad working in the back and their mom working in the front. But after the 1989 earthquake, they acquired the bar next door and continued to expand over the years. They were serving 250 people a night on any given weekend. 

Then in February, Nadia heard about a virus that was attacking and killing a lot of people in Wuhan, China. 

“At first we just didn't really think it was going to impact us all the way over here in the United States,” says Nadia. “After a couple weeks, when it hit Italy really hard, we heard from our family there that they weren't even allowed out of the house and that they had to get permission from the city council to even go to the grocery store.”

They were hearing similar stories from some of their staff who also had family in different parts of Italy. But Nadia says they still didn’t think it would come all the way to San Francisco. It wasn’t until the beginning of March that they really started to worry about what would happen to their restaurant. 

“I was pretty much calling my dad and Nadia every day,” says Paolo. “I'm like, ‘should we come up with a plan just in case?’ And initially, Nadia and my dad were like ‘we're going to stay open as long as we can, and if it has to come to the point where it's just the three of us working to take the small amount of business that's still coming in, then that's what we're going to do.’”

But quickly things changed. The virus was spreading faster and Paolo and Nadia saw their business take a nosedive. 

“At that point, it wasn't even so much thinking about our business,” says Paolo. “It was thinking about our dad who's almost 70 years old, and who, without using any kind of force, won’t get out of the restaurant. He has to be there at all times. We started thinking about him being vulnerable, and if it was worth putting him in any kind of danger. And we started thinking whether it would be worth putting our staff in danger since they all have family at home. We all sat down to talk and we were all on the same page.”

Like many restaurant owners, Nadia and Paolo had to shut down their restaurant because of the lack of business. U.S. restaurants on March 18 asked the White House and congressional leaders for at least $325 billion in aid to help them weather the coronavirus crisis, saying the industry could lose nearly half of its 15.6 million jobs and a quarter of annual sales. Nine in 10 restaurants have fewer than 50 employees, operate on thin margins, and little extra cash flow. 

Many restaurants have turned to take-out and delivery as ways to keep business going, and some have even gotten more creative with things like selling gift cards that can be redeemed for future visits to the restaurant, DIY meal kits, store merchandise, and started fundraisers, etc. 

As an increasing number of states are ordering restaurants to shut down, only allowing take-out and delivery, restaurant staff are losing their jobs. As of March, restaurant and bars account for 60 percent of the jobs lost, according to the US Department of Labor’s monthly report.

Nadia says many of their staff might be living paycheck to paycheck so she and her family have been doing everything they can to help. They’ve filled out grants for those who aren’t native English speakers. They’ve cleaned out their entire fridge and sent everyone home with bags of groceries. They’ve started a gofundme page where all proceeds will go directly to their staff to help during their unemployment. 

“We make minimum wage and we live off of tips,” says Sardi. “But there's no one to serve. There's no one to tip us on anything."

Brandon Sardi has been a server at Firenze by Night for more than three years. He’s also a full-time student. 

“We make minimum wage and we live off of tips,” says Sardi. “But there's no one to serve. There's no one to tip us on anything. It’s scary because there's no end date for this quarantine. It leaves you a little bit worried because there's no money coming in and only money going out. And especially with the rent and utilities, it's hard for any restaurant worker. And especially for students too because I still pay for school. I have next semester coming up and there’s no money coming in.”

While the job losses for restaurant staff are huge, there are alternatives for employment in the food sector. Food delivery services have seen a rise in business as more people are eating in. Sardi says he’s willing to take another job, like delivering for Uber Eats, in order to bring in money to pay his tuition, rent, utilities, and other necessities. He says he also understands that working in the restaurant/food industry will always come with more doubt over job security than some other industries because of how dependent it is on the economy. A study in the Journal of Foodservice Business Research shows a significant correlation between economic recession and growth rate for restaurants. After the 2008 recession, the U.S. restaurant industry saw a three-year consecutive decline in total industry sales, which was unprecedented at the time. 

Moreover, working in the service sector doesn’t provide the safety net that working in an industry like tech does. 55 percent of workers in the restaurants and accommodations sector don’t have paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are currently no federal requirements for paid sick leave so hourly, service industry workers are often frowned upon for taking sick leave and more importantly, if they do, they simply don’t get paid. 

1,200 people were polled for a survey about what motivates food workers, which included not only restaurant workers but also people who work at slaughter houses, food processing plants, dairies, bakeries, grocery store delis, and more. The results revealed that 51 percent of food workers "always" or "frequently" worked when they were sick, and another 38 percent said they "sometimes" work through illness. Only 6 percent said they "never" went to work when they were sick.

“I don't want to miss any days,” says Sardi. “I want to make as much money as I can. I just want to get my bills paid. For some of my past employers, they’ve been skeptical when I’ve called in sick and it's like you have to show up in order for them to believe you.”

Retail in the age of e-commerce  

Long before the global pandemic hit, brick and mortar stores were struggling to keep afloat as e-commerce giants like Amazon were dominating the retail industry. In 2019, Amazon accounted for more than a third of all e-commerce in the US, according to eMarketer’s figures. 

The unique problem for retailers in the current economy is that they are competing against online retail giants that are actually seeing more growth in these times. With so much of America sheltering in place, people are resorting to buying everything online and getting it delivered. 

US retail saw a 60% decline in foot traffic in March and millions of Americans who work for smaller or struggling retailers—even Macy's and Gap—have been furloughed. Peter*, an analyst at Francesca’s, a boutique female apparel chain headquartered in Houston, Texas, was one of those millions.

“I've been in retail for six years, and I don't think there was a single year when I did not have Plan B or Plan C. Honestly, that’s the nature of it."

Prior to Francesca’s, Peter held a similar role at Macy’s, identifying sales opportunities or risks based on current trends in the retail landscape. He says having worked in the retail industry for so many years has prepared him for rough economic times like this. 

“I've been in retail for six years, and I don't think there was a single year when I did not have Plan B or Plan C. Honestly, that’s the nature of it,” he says. “I’m a planner. My job makes me think about multiple scenarios that could happen and how would I prepare myself for it. In my head, it's always been a struggle.”

Francesca’s, like many other stores, closed all their storefronts in March for the safety of their own staff and customers. Apparel stores in particular were hard hit because consumers have stopped shopping for nonessentials. The first to be let go were the sales associates, who get paid on an hourly basis, and have fewer protections like paid sick leave or healthcare benefits. In March, 701,000 jobs were lost. Retailers account for 46,200 of those jobs. While no one wants to cut people from their company, figuring out how to stay alive so the company can come back into business is the top priority. 

“At a time like this, I think the best thing a company can do is focus their attention on something that they can control,” says Peter. “Like trying to come up with other solutions such as expanding their revenue stream from a different angle through online sales, or something that can help the company in the long run,” says Peter.

The long-term impacts are what could be the most devastating. As this trend continues, we’re likely going to see a permanently altered reality for retail. Few small and mid-sized chain stores will exist and only a few will dominate the industry. Job losses will continue as well over the next few months and spending may take a long time to resume.

Total sales, which include retail purchases in stores and online as well as money spent at bars and restaurants, fell 8.7 percent from the previous month, according to the Commerce Department. This decline was the largest in the nearly three decades the government has tracked the data.

“It was a pretty catastrophic drop-off in that back half of the month,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. She added that April “may be one of the worst months ever.”

There is also the question of how many businesses will survive this shutdown and how quickly spending will bounce back once stores start reopening again. It’s likely many people who recently lost their jobs won’t quickly resume spending and those who are willing to spend may be reluctant to shop in stores in order to avoid face-to-face contact. 

In these unpredictable times, Peter is trying to find more stability. He is waiting to be approved for his unemployment benefits, which hopefully will supplement some of the loss in income that he foresees in the next couple of months. And he’s planning ahead. 

“The next time I look for a job, I will probably seek out a company that has a more diverse portfolio when it comes to revenue stream,” he says. “So when a situation like this happens again I won’t have to worry so much about my job security.”

Forced into the frontlines

In contrast with the restaurant and retail workers who have lost their jobs as a result of social distancing orders, there are those who are part of the essential workforce who have no choice but to continue working amidst a global pandemic. Their jobs have become the most crucial. Yet, this comes with burdens that are unique to being on the frontlines. 

When we think of healthcare workers, doctors often come to mind first. But most of the people who take care of us when we’re sick, such as medical assistants, nurses, and health services managers, don’t earn physician salaries. In fact, more than 40 percent of all personal care aids, nursing assistants, and home health aides are members of low-income families according to recent data released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Their financial burdens are compounded by a lack of health insurance and the inability to take time off.

And for doctors, there’s also the issue of student debt. The average medical school debt for the class of 2018 is $196,520 according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. That could take up to 10 years to pay off on a standard $2,212/month federal repayment plan, assuming a 6.25% average interest rate. So even when residents become attending physicians, they’re likely still paying off debt from medical school. 

Allen Zheng is a fifth year student getting his MD/PhD at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Luckily, for Zheng, his MD/PhD program pays for medical school and also provides a monthly stipend, but that’s not the case for a lot of his peers who are in other programs.

“Money is actually a major consideration, especially when people are picking a residency,” says Zheng. “I think it really incentivizes people to pursue more lucrative specialties. I'm thankful for the fact that I don't have to use that as a consideration moving forward, especially because I'm more interested in working in global health.”

As a kid, Zheng wanted to be a doctor in a low or middle-income country, providing care to people in undeserved areas. He says when the coronavirus outbreak started to get really serious, he actually felt a bit conflicted because if he hadn’t done a PhD program, he’d be a doctor by now, helping on the clinical front lines and treating patients. 

“What's ironic is that a disaster relief organization that largely operates in low and middle-income countries, has set up tents in the backyard of Sinai,” Zheng says. “So the global health is really coming to me. Which is great, but I mean obviously the whole thing is terrible, but to me it's definitely an opportunity to help and get involved with the work.”

“It's one of those things where I feel like I was made to do this in this moment."

In addition to helping set up the emergency field hospital that’s been set up in Central Park, Zheng is part of the microbiology department that has developed a blood test to detect antibodies to COVID-19. These tests will help determine the true infection rates and understand the nature of the disease within communities. 

As a part of this effort, Zheng and his labmates have had to continue going into the lab, while trying to limit exposure to each other by taking shifts, wearing masks during work, and moving more department-wide meetings onto Zoom. Though Zheng understands there is inherent risk in what he does every day, he says he is in a position, unlike many others, where what’s at stake is worth the risk.  

“I think back to my coworker who doesn't come into work because his wife is immunocompromised. If I were in a situation like that, that would be an altogether different question,” says Zheng. “But when I see my parents, 12 feet away, I’ve got my mask on, they’re in full, personal protective equipment. I also know that young people are much less likely to develop severe disease. Not to say that they don't, but the vast majority don’t, so there's also comfort in knowing that.”

Brad*, a firefighter paramedic based outside Washington DC, also believes that he is in a unique position to help others during this time.

“I've always thought about who can do this work physically,” says Brad. “Not everybody can. I used to work with kids with disabilities and some of them have cerebral palsy. So I think if you have the desire to help people and you're able to, then once you're asked to do something, you're even more likely to do it.”

Brad and his team have been on the frontlines, but they’ve had to change their usual routine in response to the pandemic. In addition to working alternating 24-hour shifts, they now all wear surgical masks whenever they’re around the firehouse. When Brian responds to cases, he treats them all as if they’re COVID-19 cases. The paramedic part of Brad’s job means he has had medical training and can give drugs, start IVs, and intubate people (inserting breathing tubes all the way down to the lungs). He wears additional personal protective gear like an N95 mask, eye protection, and a body gown. Then there’s the sanitization of all the gear and decontamination of the ambulance, which he says takes a very long time and requires a lot of attention to detail. But at the end of the day, it’s the mental stress that Brian says is the hardest thing to deal with. 

“The biggest change for us is the impact that this has on firefighters families,” says Brad. “It’s a complete game changer for us. Our jobs have always been inherently dangerous. It has gotten a little more dangerous for us with this pandemic, but in terms of danger to our families, that just went off the charts compared to what it used to be.”

Mental stress is a serious, yet sometimes overlooked issue for all frontline workers. A study published in the medical journal JAMA found that among 1,257 healthcare workers working with COVID-19 patients in China, 50.4% reported symptoms of depression, 44.6% symptoms of anxiety, 34% insomnia, and 71.5% reported distress. Nurses and other frontline workers were among those with the most severe symptoms.

Some researchers are comparing this pandemic to a mass community disaster, with elements of terrorism in that there is an ongoing fear component. Some are equating this to the 9/11 attacks or World War II, but even those were limited in geography. This outbreak has no boundaries.

Despite all the risks, frontline workers Brad and Zheng both say they feel a strong motivation and a level of moral responsibility in helping others. It is this type of mentality that keeps them going.

“I like to think that I would sign up to be a firefighter today, even if this was part of the job,” says Brad. “I don’t think it’s any firefighter’s nature to back down.”

“It's one of those things where I feel like I was made to do this in this moment,” says Zheng. “I think most people never really have the experience of feeling definitively like this is what they were made for, so I think it's a real privilege to run with the feeling that ‘this is what you were supposed to do.’”

*name has been changed for confidentiality