COVID-19: Shifting our approach to employment

April 15, 2020 | Audrey-Maude Vézina

Mise à jour : September 15, 2020

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” aptly describes how the pandemic is affecting the labour market. “Some jobs will disappear and new ones will emerge,” says Professor Mircea Vultur, a work and employability specialist at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS). “The hierarchy of jobs will change based on usefulness, both in terms of remuneration and status. New ideas will surface and the ways we do things will change.”

COVID-19 has disrupted the labour market. And Professor Mircea Vultur is expecting changes in job hierarchy. Jobs might be reevaluated based on how useful they are to society and how onerous they are. He points to Premier François Legault’s comments on increasing pay for certain types of essential jobs to encourage staff to keep working. “The most important jobs will see better pay and increased prestige. For example, healthcare aides, orderlies, and grocery store employees have already gotten a raise,” he says.

Professor Vultur expects that our mentality will shift along with salaries based on contribution to society. “The idea will be to pay workers according how useful the work they do is, rather than it’s symbolic value. We may end up attaching less importance to degrees and high-level qualifications and placing greater value on the people at the bottom of the employment system, because society can’t function without them. The pandemic has made that very clear,” he says.

In terms of its effects on economic structure, the COVID-19 is similar to the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century. “The Plague led to a complete overhaul of the production system, reduced inequality, and improved pay for the lowest wage earners. Back then, the body collectors got a raise. Today, it’s essential service workers and caregivers who will see pay increases,” says Professor Vultur.

Revealing inequalities

Crises often reveal inequalities that are hidden during periods of economic growth. “People who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder are coping better during the crisis. They’re able to work from home and are insulated from risk. People who earn less and work in essential services are hit hardest. They don’t really have a choice—if they want to afford food and rent, they have to show up for work at the front lines,” says Professor Vultur.

He singles out one job that’s falling through the safety net of emergency policies while getting increasingly stressful and difficult: delivery people. “Even though they’re essential at the moment, delivery people aren’t getting better pay or increased standing. They have to respect social distancing guidelines while making deliveries, so they’re dehumanized even more than before. They’re seen as a means to an end,” he said.

New ways of doing things

In addition to revealing inequalities, the pandemic is also a driver of change. Confinement has forced companies and institutions into working remotely. “Many employers were dismissive of remote work because they feared employees would be less productive. Now they’re realizing that efficiency isn’t tied to a specific location. Working from home can actually be more efficient because workers are better rested and travel time is eliminated,” the researcher says. He’s expecting that many companies will expand remote working arrangements after the crisis.

Production will also change as a result of the pandemic. “We want to bring production back to Quebec so we can be more self-sufficient in terms of things like medicine, protective equipment, and food,” says Professor Vultur. Relocating the production of these items will increase the cost of living because it’s more expensive to make them here than in China or elsewhere. For less developed countries, these moves could put a significant number of people out of work and plunge them into even deeper poverty.”

Professor Vultur thinks it’s too early to tell whether the changes caused by the pandemic will be positive or negative. But one thing’s for sure, there’s no going back.