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The Dignity of Work in a Fractured Workplace

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“[F]or the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

On the night before he died, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words in a plea for recognition of the dignity of all labor.  It is a message we should revisit as we enter this Labor Day weekend, given the fractured state of our workplace.  This is not about pay ratios.  The great telework experiment we have conducted over the past several months has sown an even greater divide between the 70 percent of the workforce that has not had the option to work from home and those who have had the luxury to be able to work from home.

Some were deemed essential, others just could not possibly do their work from home, but most workers have continued to do their jobs in plants, warehouses, shops, restaurants or fields.  They have had to worry about exposure to a potentially lethal virus while doing their jobs and the related possibility of exposing loved ones at home.  At the same time, some have had to worry about whether the COVID-19 pandemic could cause them to lose their jobs if the pandemic fails to subside in the near future.  For others, the pandemic has driven demand and increased their work, adding longer hours to the mix.  And if this were not enough, many workers continue to confront the racial issues and social unrest that we see on our televisions or in the streets of our cities.

What these workers need now, on this Labor Day weekend and thereafter, is a sign from management of how much their work is appreciated and that management is in this struggle with them.  If a corporate officer appears at the plant for the first time in months to talk about how well the company is doing, he should not be surprised if workers are thinking, “We have been here, but where were you?”  If visits to plants, terminals, and field offices have not been made by top management to communicate the appreciation due these workers, it is time to make them.  There may be risk in travel, staying in hotels, and meeting with people in person, but saving a fractured workforce from becoming a dysfunctional one is, in my estimation, worth some risk.

It is not lost on the 70 percent that the 30 percent, the so-called knowledge workers, tend to be higher paid.  Employers must recognize this situation and work actively, and at times out of the home, to make sure the 70 percent understand that their labor has dignity.  As Dr. King said, “[W]henever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this.”

Please visit our Coronavirus: Preparation & Response series for additional resources we hope will be helpful.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.