15 years ago the Great Recession shook America. Scary TV news reports featured bank after bank shuttering. Businesses, whether “Too big to fail” or small Mom and Pops, were crumbling. Foreclosure signs began dotting neighborhood lawns. Many employers across the country, struggling to remain open, downsized personnel. Some of these positions vanished completely. Those who remained were often left juggling the additional workload well after the worst of the recession ended. Low wage earners were the hardest hit. If it wasn’t you, it was a friend, co-worker, or family member left emotionally and financially devastated as companies laid off workers. Employees close to retirement were often the first let go and the last rehired. The expertise they brought to the table was now seen as too expensive. Far too many unemployed workers who did return to the workforce were forced to take any job they could and on average earned 17.5% to 20.8 % less.
“Good employee-management practices took a big step back during this period because employees were willing to put up with anything as long as they had a job.” [Peter Capelli, Wharton, “How The Great Recession Changed American Workers”, 9/10/18]
In 2017 unemployment finally returned to pre-recession numbers. This recovery coincided with the rebirth of #MeToo, an activist movement that began around the same year as the Great Recession. This time around #MeToo rocked the corporate world. Victims of sexual harassment were speaking out and demanding change in workplaces all over the country. The Pew Research Center links this cultural shift to the results of a 2018 survey showing that 89% of Americans say it's essential for business leaders to create safe, respectful workplaces. With the pendulum of power finally swinging towards the American worker, magic was beginning to happen.
…Positive Changes That Have Come From The #MeToo Movement: New York expanded its sexual harassment law to cover independent contractors in 2018 and improved protections for domestic workers in 2019. California broadened its law in 2018 to offer protections for people harassed in an expanded set of business relationships .... Meanwhile, hundreds of domestic and farm workers rallied in Washington last year to urge Congress to extend harassment protections to cover them. The BE HEARD Act would do that, giving protections to independent contractors, domestic workers, and more. (Ann North, October 4, 2019, VOX)
And, then suddenly the country shut down and we were all terrified as we watched scary news reports about a spiky virus killing hundreds of thousands and upending our lives. According to the Pew Research Center, unemployment rose higher in the first three months of COVID-19 than it did in the two years of the Great Recession. Hispanic women, immigrants, young adults and those less educated were the hardest hit. Workers risking their lives at frontline jobs were all too often unprotected and overworked. But, this time around when businesses began re-opening some workers were choosing not to return. Employers began to offer pay raises and increased benefits to fill job vacancies.
“…for some, the last year has rebalanced the power seesaw between worker and boss. Maybe it was the surge of people quitting: A record high 4.5 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in November… (Emma Goldberg,“No More Working For Jerks”, NY Times, 1/8/22)
I would argue that among the Great Recession’s legacies is a growing lack of trust that employers see their greatest asset - the employee - as more than an expendable debit. That trust is the key component in creating the dignity and respectful workplaces that Americans yearn for. And, at least for some, may have helped pave the way for today’s Great Resignation.
“…a work force that had shocking changes imposed on it has reconsidered its basic assumptions about how people treat each other in corporate life.…increasingly, as people’s work routines have been upended by the pandemic, they’ve begun to question the thrum of unpleasantness and accumulation of indignities they used to shrug off as part of the office deal. Some are saying: no more working for jerks.” (Emma Goldberg,“No More Working For Jerks”, NY Times, 1/8/22)
Our work family sees us at least 40 hours a week. And, if we’re being honest, many of us have probably been a jerk to a co-worker at one time or another. Hopefully, we’ve done some major soul searching, apologized profusely, and made amends for inappropriate behavior never ever ever to be repeated again. The Bully Boss, on the other hand, doesn’t stop. He/she feeds on power dynamics and is toxic on so many tragic levels for both their co-workers as well as the employers bottom line productivity and income. You would think that last little bit - productivity and income - would be enough to encourage all businesses to create and enforce policies to protect their staff. Or, that legislators would finally enact long overdue legislation to protect the targets of these office tyrants from what can rise to psychological harm and financial ruin.
Maybe the Great Resignation can inspire a new type of legislative magic. Long overdue minimum wage laws are passing. HERO and workplace safety laws have been enacted to help protect workers risking their lives like those on the front lines of the pandemic. But, all too often legal loopholes in current legislation end up protecting the wrong person.
“although Plaintiff has more than adequately alleged a hostile and abusive work environment, both subjectively and objectively, she failed entirely to allege facts from which the Court can reasonably infer that her race or gender was a motivating factor (let alone the-but for cause) for the mistreatment.”Posplislaw Blog
Bullying and harassment isn't illegal unless targets are members of a protected class (sex, race, age, etc.) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and they must also prove, like in the case cited above, the abuse is from their protected class membership. The Dignity At Work Act (DAWA) goes the furthest in filling that gap and creates a cause of action to protect all workers from abusive workplaces. The bill was developed by Professor Jerry Carbo, President of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition and was introduced in Rhode Island SO196/H6352) where it passed the State Senate March 9, 2021, with a vote of 35 Yea and 3 Nay. Carbo and victims of abuse later testified in front of the entire Rhode Island House. In Massachusetts Carbo spoke at a similar hearing in front of the joint Senate and House Labor Committee where victims of abuse bravely shared their stories. Imagine if legislators use the power that is in their hands to ensure what nearly 90% of Americans want - and deserve - a safe and respectful workplace for each of us.