Sarah Jaffe

Exploiting and Exhausting the Workforce

Air Date: July 26, 2021

Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe discusses the pandemic’s exacerbation of an exploited and exhausted workforce and prescriptions to improve the well-being of workers.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest, Sarah Jaffe. She is author of “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone.” Sarah, welcome. Thanks so much for joining me today.


JAFFE: Hi. Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: It’s our pleasure. You are also a labor reporter, journalist, and have covered that beat extensively and pretty deeply for years now. Let me ask you a very basic question to begin with. Is it the case that work won’t love us back primarily in the United States or is it really a universal phenomenon in your estimation?


JAFFE: So I’m speaking to you from England right now, where I spent a bunch of time reporting this book. I also reported from Canada, and I did not go to Germany, but one of the workers who I spoke to in the book is from Germany. And so I would say it is a universal truth, however, Americans have a particular attitude towards work, and we’ve been exporting that. So like the unpaid internship for example, is an American innovation that has now made it around the world.


HEFFNER: Right. Or healthcare.


JAFFE: Well, you know …


HEFFNER: In the countries you mentioned though in, you know, in the vast majority of instances, but not every instance, you know, you rely on one person, either yourself or your partner for that if… And larger organizations are much more equipped to provide healthcare and then provide adequate healthcare. And that’s unique to the United States, right, of the countries you mentioned, relative to Germany, UK, and Canada. So work won’t love you back in a variety of respects and maybe most universally in the U.S., but in that respect, I wonder if it is culturally different enough that you feel protected by society, by your sort of countrymen in the health care systems of those countries?


JAFFE: Yeah. And I think what’s happening in so many of these places, right, is that the sort of, I mean, the reason that Europe has a strong social safety net is the post-World War II sort of social compact, right, that was just never as strong in the U.S. and so we built our health care system off of unionized jobs, and we assumed that people would get a good unionized job and that would provide healthcare for them and their family. And when those jobs go away, we don’t have a public system that picks up the slack. Now, here in the UK, for example, they have a wonderful, fully public healthcare system. However, they’ve been slashing funding for it for years and years and years. And so people have a really hard time getting doctors’ appointments. Not because public health care doesn’t work, but because of austerity and all of these things in the last several decades, they’ve been cutting it back, sort of at the same time, as we’ve been seeing the same shrinking of the safety net in other ways in the U.S. So what’s happening in a lot of places is not, it’s not hitting people quite as badly because you still have access to publicly provided healthcare, but the same patterns of work are happening. And the same patterns of sort of cutbacks of public services are happening. It’s just that in the U.S. we had much less far to fall, so to speak.


HEFFNER: Right. And the hard cover of your book came out earlier this year in January. I mentioned healthcare, Sarah, because we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, a pandemic, right? And so there are some of us who’ve been privileged to be able to work from home for the majority, if not all the pandemic.


JAFFE: Right.


HEFFNER: Those who have resumed their function in person, even though it’s not required, just because of a kind of rigidity in the attitude of employers. And this is what is stunning to me, the CEO of Morgan Stanley was quoted in a story in the New York Times that the remote work was for real, this is it. And I think it was in connection to real estate and how their offices were fully functional remote. And many companies now have backtracked from their earlier assertions about flexibility and remote being, you know, most desirable and even essential for families during this time. So it seems like we haven’t learned from the pandemic. We still don’t have a living wage. We still don’t, I mean, in the United States, you’re in UK right now. We still don’t have a living wage. We still don’t have a universal right to high-quality care. We still have, even if you are in a subsidized plan, extreme deductibles for the Affordable Care Act or Obama Care plans that were supposed to be a public service. So, you know, work isn’t loving you back in the U.S. and there doesn’t seem to be a recognition since you published your book that the conditions of the pandemic, as it is still a pandemic, ought to be preserved.


JAFFE: Yeah.


HEFFNER: I mean, this is what happens in the workplace, right?


JAFFE: Yeah. What happened in the pandemic right, in terms of work, is we basically split into three groups. Those of us who can do our jobs from home, right. Like I’ve been working from home for 10 years now. So like, I’m, you know, I was ahead of the curve. But people like us who can mostly do our job from home, and it’s not as good to do these interviews over zoom as it was to do them in person, certainly, but we can do them. Then there were people who just got laid off, right. Jobs are gone. In some cases, you know, they were kept on payroll. There’s a furlough scheme here in the UK, but mostly people who are just not working. And then there are the people who still had to keep going to work, you know, and that is the so-called essential workers, right. And that’s the healthcare workers, but also food service, all of these things that sort of stayed open to make sure that the rest of us, you know, didn’t die and could keep ordering things and could keep the computers running and all of that stuff. So there were people going into a workplace, whether or not that was an office, for the entire time. And in each of those cases, right, conditions were not very good in a variety of ways. The people who still had to go to the office obviously had it the worst, because they were taking a much bigger risk than the rest of us. But one would think that some of this language about essential workers and essential work would have stuck to us that we might’ve thought, you know, hey, those people deserve a raise.


HEFFNER: Yeah. Right.


JAFFE: We might think that we have underestimated the amount of our jobs that we need to do in a direct office, under the supervision of our boss. And look, there are bad things about working from home too. Like as somebody who’s worked from home for the last 10 years, again, I pay all my bills. I pay my internet, my, you know, my phone, my WIFI, I pay for new computers. I pay for printers, printer paper, all of that stuff that your boss would normally pay for, if you again, went to an office. So, you know, there are downsides in that way there are downsides that it makes it harder to organize with your coworkers if you were fed up with your working conditions and want to do something about them. But also, you know, people have childcare responsibilities. Another thing we really don’t have in the U.S. is a functional childcare system, right?


So in a way that would make it a lot more easy, and a lot more equitable in the workplace in a lot of ways would be to give people more flexible working hours. And I mean, the real thing that we all could use is fewer of those working hours, right? And so, you know, I think one of the things we hopefully might learn is that we don’t need to spend all of our lives working. And I was just, I was actually working on the preface for the paperback edition of the book the other day. So I was literally looking at numbers and Monster dot com released a survey saying 95 percent of people are considering switching jobs after the pandemic. So like, we’ve definitely had a moment of thinking about how we work and how it’s not functional. And my book just happened to come out at the right time.


HEFFNER: Well, I think you describe very accurately the state of being here, in the U.S. and more broadly too to the extent that a lot of developed nations have emulated the U.S., rather than Canada, Germany and the UK, which you mentioned. One of the interesting things, Sarah was that in the original debate over COVID relief, when Trump was still president, there was Mitch McConnell did not want to act on aid unless there was a liability shield. And to my knowledge, that liability shield has still not been installed, in effect, even though there have been multiple stages of stimulus and some protection for workers since the beginning of the pandemic. But, my point really is, we are still in the pandemic. It’s not over by any means.


JAFFE: It’s definitely not over.


HEFFNER: Right. And, and so the idea that these, you know, companies that are requiring work in office, even though it’s totally not essential, are going to be subjected to, I would imagine, unless McConnell gets his way with a future stimulus and a liability shield, they’re going to be subjected to a plethora of lawsuits, are they not?


JAFFE: I mean, it’s actually really hard to sue your employer in a lot of cases anyway, right? Like, A, most people can’t afford a lawyer. B, there are all sorts of things that you sign normally when you’re taking a job, you know, anything from, you know, binding arbitration to you know, NDAs and whatnot. So it’s actually much harder to sue your boss, already. Mitch McConnell just wanted to make it even harder to sue your boss. And there were things that, you know, Trump did like basically ruling meat packing plants, you know, sort of free from any restrictions and regulations, because that was one of the real hotspots for people getting sick and dying. And of course, do you want people who are sick and dying of COVID handling the meat that you’re eating? Probably not. But yeah, I mean, the idea that you would hold up money that millions of people needed to survive, because you want to make sure that corporations don’t get sued, is a little bit of a skewed priority wouldn’t you say?


HEFFNER: Right, right. It is. And, you know, having said that, I do wonder if we’re possibly on the cutting edge of this legal reckoning, you know, in the same way that if you watch Philadelphia with Hanks and Washington, you know, that was really the beginning of some larger cultural cognizance about suing folks on the basis of their sexual orientation or that they are ill. And that was the case in that particular movie based on real events. So, I hear what you’re saying, but I just do wonder if this thing, you know, does stick around with its multiplicity of variants and transmissibility and infection, even for people who are protected, even people, people who were vaccinated, just, I wonder if it will set the stage for a whole lot of these suits, whether they’re class actions or not. But a lot of suits, basically saying I did, you know, my job thoroughly, completely, you asked me to come the office, I continued to do that, that, and then because you forced me to come to the office in effect, otherwise I was going to lose my job, lose my benefits. You know, then in that scenario, the family of the victim could sue the company. I mean, I think that’s a legitimate…


JAFFE: Yeah. What usually happens with, with cases like this, right is that like the goal of, of a big class action lawsuit is not so much to get money for the victims so much as it is to change policy.


HEFFNER: Right. Exactly.


JAFE: And when we’re talking about labor lawsuits, this is especially true. If you look at like how long it takes to get these things sort of through the courts, it is not a useful source for most people of restitution. If you lose your job that way, right. Most people are just going to be like, well, I’m screwed. I’ve got to go get another job. Right. But like, what it will do if people decide to fight it this way is it would probably be done by places like the ACLU, like some of these, like the National Employment Law Project, maybe, organizations that do this in order to try to change policy, to change the law, to use that to push for different things. Now, one of the things that’s been happening since Biden took office, is they’ve been putting more money into funding the Labor Department, which, you know, has a whole lot of things underneath it, including workplace safety inspectors, which we have been so deeply underfunded on that I think the last time I checked pre the Biden Administration, they had about enough inspectors to inspect every workplace once every 900 years. So, you know, just seeing more money going into workplace health and safety inspections is like a step in the right direction. Although again, these are places that it’s really hard for individual people to get redress through. You will get, you will solve your problems a lot faster organizing quickly with…organizing with your coworkers that also takes a while, but it takes less time than a lawsuit, most of the time.


HEFFNER: For a labor guy, Sarah, Biden has his work cut out for him. He is strongly, you know, formidable when it comes to resonating with the blue-collar audience. He’s built a political career in Delaware and now nationally on that kind of person of the people aura. When it comes down to it labor and the rights of workers could not be at a lower low right now in the U.S., which is to say, you know, we live in not only a cannibal, cannibalistic capitalism, but we live, you know, in a state of severe inequity. We live in that state while the rights of those dispossessed, or those who have very little possession, you know, are virtually stripped of their right, going back to your point about how hard it is to sue in the first place. So when it comes to like the first tangible things that a President Biden, now that he is president, can accomplish you know, either before the midterms or beyond ‘22, you know, gearing up for a re-election in ‘24, what are those tangible things, knowing the American political landscape?


JAFFE: So yeah, so the top priority for the labor movement is the PRO Act, which is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. And obviously the Senate at this moment is not like immediately in any rush to pass well, much of anything because, you know, Mitch McConnell, as you mentioned, doesn’t really want anything good to happen for working people. But the PRO Act is something that would roll back things like Right to Work states, right, which allow people to basically get the benefits of a union contract without having to pay anything to the union. And it would put actual sort of binding penalties in place for employers who violate the law during a union election, for example, the recent Amazon union election in Bessemer, Alabama, right, the union accused Amazon of, I think like 29 different law violations, including possibly illegally tampering with a post office box that they got installed on the premises. And even if they are found guilty of doing that, there’s basically very little real penalties. Elon Musk was, you know, found guilty by the Labor Department of violating workers’ rights at the Tesla plant in California. And his punishment was to rehire the one guy who had had been fired and to read a statement out loud to the plant saying that they had the right to organize and he’s still appealing. So putting into place actual penalties for employers who violate the law, well that’s, again, this would be a real step in the right direction because right now, you can basically get away with murder. And those, you know, the men that I’ve just mentioned are like the two richest men in the planet who are currently in like a weird billionaire space race with the guy from Virgin Airlines, who I just found out it didn’t actually go to space. He just flew a plane really high and they’re calling it going to space. So I don’t know. But billionaires have way too much time and money on their hands is what I’m saying. And they can basically under the current law, kind of get away with murder.


HEFFNER: And understanding that is the status quo. We think of solutions like Universal Basic Income as an incremental way to, you know, start a measure of fairness.


JAFFE: Yeah.


HEFFNER: It’s not leveling the playing field. That’s not a correct definition of what, at least as it’s been implemented or advocated so far, what Universal Basic Income, but then, you know, we talk about the Supreme Court of the United States in the most recent session, which is further barring the right to petition or to get folks enrolled, involved in unions. That was a decision in this most recent court that you might comment on, but knowing again, that the political, the legislative and judicial, and economic capitalistic structure are all anti-worker basically, what can we reasonably hope would get accomplished over the next two or four years? A hike in the minimum wage, you know, or maybe we’re looking at advances at the state level, because in all honesty, Republican governors know as much as Democratic governors, the reality that I just said.


JAFFE: Yeah. And so what we have seen right, in so many places in the U.S. is that states and really cities are experimenting with various advancements in labor law. So New York City, for instance, just enacted, it’s “Just Cause” protections for the fast-food industry. So now if you work at McDonald’s, your boss has to have a reason to fire you because most country, most states in the U.S. other than Montana it is legal to fire you, no matter what. So they put “Just Cause” protections into the law for fast-food workers. In Emeryville, California, I reported from there a few years ago on a fair scheduling bill for retail workers, where they had the right to be paid if they were put on on-call shifts, if they were sent home early, they had to be paid for an extra hour of the time if they were sent home early. So it disincentivized the boss from sort of jerking around their schedules. Things like that, obviously raising the minimum wage locally, those have been really helpful. But again, that, you know, that helps people who live in New York, which, you know, is 8 million people. It’s nothing to sneeze at. But right, as long as you have states like Alabama, where, you know, the state government is just not going to bat an eyelash if Amazon comes in and builds a whole bunch of facilities and just abuses the hell out of their workers yeah, it’s going to take a lot of building and a lot of organizing and a lot of disruption to change this stuff, because it’s not just going to be handed to us nicely, but it wasn’t handed to us nicely the first time around.




JAFFE: Right. The fact that we got labor law, as we knew it, that was at one point pretty good and still contains some pretty decent protections, right? Your boss cannot legally fire you for organizing on the job even if you don’t have a union. That’s the thing most people don’t know. Now, of course, again, we talked about how there are no real penalties for them doing that anyway. But nevertheless, you know, the things that are in the law, some of them are pretty decent. Some of them were pretty decent until they got rolled back. That all came from massive waves of organizing, strikes, protests. In some cases, you know, when we talk about the mine wars, we’re not joking, right that this was actually really quite violent and bloody in places like West Virginia, you know, a hundred years ago when they were unionizing the coal mines. And so that all sounds very depressing when I put it that way. Doesn’t it?


HEFFNER: Well, it, it does. And that’s why I asked you the first question about your escape to the UK. Tell us that you’ve reported from there, from Canada, from Germany, or at least are corresponding with workers there. And, and my basic contention that for most folks, work will never love you back in the U.S., but in other countries, you know, there is an extent to which work loves you back a little bit or at least…


JAFFE: Well. I mean, in this case, the state loves you back, right? Because you’re not getting your healthcare through your employer at all in this country, right? So you’re getting your healthcare from the government. So our employer has nothing to do with it.




JAFFE: You know, so the working conditions can still be pretty bad and they are, right. The latest fun thing that UK employers are doing is fire and rehire.




JAFFE: Because they have the right to an employment contract over here, but they’re basically firing people so that they can rewrite their employment contract and bring them back on under worse conditions. So that’s the next latest, fun thing that’s happening over here or the zero hours contract where you get a contract, but it doesn’t guarantee you any time. So yeah, it’s grim kind of everywhere. It’s just, you know…


HEFFNER: Fair enough. And I wasn’t necessarily talking about the reality and I wasn’t talking specifically about healthcare as much as the perception of some Americans that the work relationship that they would have, in not necessarily the three countries we’ve compared the U.S. to today, but in a host of other countries, whether that’s, you know, South Korea or Japan, or I’m sure the grimness hits the fan in a lot of directions and the generational reality of divestment and austerity, and basically this disconnect between the largess of the few and everybody else, I mean, that’s true everywhere, right? But basically, I guess I’m asking you to close on this question of the perception, because the perception of some Americans, maybe legitimately, maybe not, is that in European countries, for example, or at least a selection of European countries, it is a healthier, financially and psychologically relationship with your employer than in the U.S. It’s a perception.


JAFFE: Yeah, yeah, no, I mean, and again, I would that, you know, the U.S. is uniquely bad in a lot of ways, right? And again, like, and we’re exporting those. So, you know, what often happens when you’re over here, for example, is people say, do you want us to end up like the U.S. when we talk about, you know, anything from cutbacks to healthcare to various changes to labor law, they’re like, do you want us to be like, those Americans, you know, when the French get threatened with, you know, raising the length of the working week, they go, you know, set things on fire because they don’t want to end up like the Americans. And so, yeah. I mean, there are definitely places that have a healthier relationship to work. Iceland just finished trials of a four-day working week. So, you know, there is a…


HEFFNER: Australia … New Zealand and Australia have been on, on sort of the less grim side of things, right?


JAFFE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so it’s, it’s a question of, I mean, there are so many things going on right now, right. But I think what’s happening, especially after the pandemic again, is that people are realizing that, like, not only do we need to change very, very quickly because, you know, we’re setting the planet on fire, but also, we can change very, very quickly because we did just change very, very quickly, right?


HEFFNER: Let me just ask you one final question, because we only have seconds, but I’m very curious. This just occurred to me, you know, one of the explanations for why we can never have it that way in the U.S. is the deficits and the budgets related to public pensions. You hear it time and time again from conservatives, and even, I would say center-left folks who are, want to be cognizant of that. Illinois and Chicago are prime examples. What’s the appropriate reaction to that based on the actual facts?


JAFFE: I mean, I’m not a Keynesian economist, but I would say that, you know, we proved a long time ago that deficits are not necessarily terrible. And if, you know, conservatives want to complain about deficits, I would like to introduce them to their hero, Ronald Reagan, who ran massive deficits.


HEFFNER: But ultimately what those people are espousing is the idea that doing what is humane, and in many cases, what is owed to public workers, the school bus driver for 40 years.


JAFFE: Yeah.


HEFFNER: Sure, Illinois or Chicago might be in debt, but do you want to deny that person a humane retirement, and we’ll leave on that maybe less than grim question of a note, Sarah Jaffe, thank you for the book you wrote and the important labor journalism you do every day. We really appreciate it.


JAFFE: Thank you.


HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.