Denver labor law elected not to report on the employment law changes that took place during the quarantine for several reason. While there is good reporting on the federal relief legislation like the CARES Act or FMLA amendments for COVID-19, the risk that generalized legal discussion on this blog might lead people to make decisions about their specific situation that might be extremely harmful to their jobs. Now that it appears Colorado will follow national recommendations to ease out of quarantine we have to wonder what kind of workplace there will be for workers as they return to work.
We know that an overwhelming number of workers were laid off as shelter in place set in with even less known about how many will have their jobs restored as people return to work. With the federal enhancement to unemployment benefits beginning to be paid at the end of May (backdated to March 27) it is likely those who temporarily gave up applying for unemployment benefits will make renewed efforts so the total number of unemployed workers may not be known for some time.
Nevertheless, here are some predictions for what workers may experience returning to the workplace.
We don’t know how long it will take for the vast majority of jobs to return in Colorado
Practically we know that unwinding quarantine will take longer than instituting the COVID-19 quarantine. One obvious reason is that the Colorado orders unwinding quarantine are not opening all industries for work right away or letting offices fully restaff right away. That is going to slow workers getting back to work and slow the return of economic activity justifying full employment. We don’t know at this point how many businesses might not return after quarantine ends or how competition among the stronger survivors might beat up those in more precarious positions.
We also do not know if reversing quarantine will be a permanent path forward. If COVID-19 cases start increasing we likely will see a return to at least a more stringent quarantine. Colorado, along with other states, may enact waves of quarantine to try to flatten the curve.
The extent and permanence of the return to normal economic activity will definitely play a role in jobs returning. Industries that rely upon large social gatherings likely will be especially hard hit for some time which will have ripple effects on other industries. Jobs within these industries and those secondary to social businesses may not fully recover staffing for months or even years after quarantine fully ends.
A secondary concern is that after the initial quarantine the increase in contact and proximity may incite another spike in infections which will force another quarantine order. That may be disastrous for businesses dealing in perishable products as they place orders for supplies and then have to dispose of them in a subsequent shelter in place order. Employers could find themselves cutting workers to account for those business losses.
More remote work will occur in the future
Businesses remain divided on the subject of remote work in general but the shelter in place order forced many businesses to expand their remote staffing which may encourage more employers to adopt broader remote staffing policies. As employers see productivity remain fairly consistent with long term work from home it will be tempting to transfer more Colorado employees to remote work and give up the expense of maintaining offices.
While working from home is widely popular it also comes with the risk that employers will go a step further and consider moving their workforce out of employee relationships into independent contractor positions. Along with this move workers will see benefits disappear along with opportunities for promotions.
Further issues arise in urban parts of Colorado like Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder and Colorado Springs in which businesses leave downtown offices and business parks as they downsize office space and in turn reduce the consumers of nearby businesses such as restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores.
Employers will likely respond to the return to work with pay and benefit reductions
WIth the economy still far behind its pre-quarantine state many businesses are already cutting benefits and salary as they rush employees back into the office. After the collapse in 2008 many employers in Colorado and other states moved benefits and bonuses to discretionary benefits so employers could cut employee compensation in economic downturns. We are already seeing employers cutting 401k matches and other now-discretionary benefits. We are also seeing salary cuts across the nation, especially with non-executive compensation.
Much like the 2008 collapse, employees will likely see at least some of these reductions and discretionary benefit cuts become permanent as employers look to further cut labor costs regardless of productivity.
Employees suffer the greatest harm in economic downturns rather than the executives who receive enormous compensation packages for their leadership. Executive compensation is typically one of the last business costs to suffer cuts in a downturn despite the fact that their leadership failed to plan appropriately or foresee economic downturns. This is particularly appalling in the current economy.
For years businesses have been hoarding cash over increasing employee compensation. The argument for the 2017 tax cuts was that employers would increase worker pay but instead they took all that money and used it for stock buybacks which increase shareholder compensation and in turn often executive compensation but left the coffers empty to weather this storm.
High unemployment numbers will put pressure on workers to accept less pay and worse work conditions
Unemployment numbers reflect that twenty percent of the workforce was rendered unemployed by the quarantine–an enormous number. That does not even account for the people who suffered reductions in hours or people who left the workforce entirely. High unemployment increases the supply of available workers for any job opening and employers take advantage of the increased supply by reducing the compensation for jobs. As a result employers enjoy long term reductions in labor costs.
Employers also know people are less likely to leave their current positions because it is more difficult to obtain new work and the available jobs are less likely to pay better. That allows employers to cut compensation, increase work demands and generally treat employees worse. Like other harms suffered by employees following an economic downturn, employees are likely to see many of these changes become long term.
Sexual harassment will rise considerably
Sexual harassment claims are likely to increase over the next year for several reasons. As discussed above, employees are likely to suffer less pleasant workplaces and employers will feel emboldened to take advantage of employees knowing they are unlikely to leave and therefore suffer in silence. Managers will take advantage of that environment to engage in quid pro quo harassment and other forms of sex discrimination.
Further, quarantine has understandably been a difficult period of loneliness for a lot of people and inevitably some people are going to take the return to work as an opportunity to try to remedy that loneliness in some inappropriate ways. Quarantine has also seen concerning increases in domestic abuse and relationship stress that will likely lead to the end of a significant number of relationships. Those people may reenter singledom in inappropriate ways as well.
Retaliation complaints will skyrocket
With all of the problems discussed above employees will likely complain about these unwelcome situations only to suffer additional negative consequences which in turn will prompt more internal and external retaliation complaints. Most labor and employment laws in Colorado and under federal law have separate provisions allowing employees to recover for harm suffered as a result of complaining about unlawful activity.
Colorado employers will seek relief from labor and employment lawsuits as COVID-19 stress
Employers are already gearing up to argue a defense of unlawful labor and employment practices that COVID-19 and the quarantine effects resulted in strange times and employers should enjoy slack in following the law. This defense is likely to roll out across federal and Colorado courts in labor and employment lawsuits. There is reasonable probability that at least some states will pass laws giving employers statutory relief from labor and employment laws.
Waves of layoffs will likely continue for a year or more as seasonal businesses feel the effects
Even with a general return to work many industries will likely continue to suffer waves of layoffs. Productivity reductions will likely continue for an extended period of time as people remain out of work and people avoid large gatherings. This will be a particular problem for industries that rely entirely upon people gathering together or spending discretionary income. Tourism, concerts, conventions, gambling, skiing and other industries will likely feel the effects of this economic downturn long after people return to work.
What Colorado workers should do now
This is a tough time for a lot of workers and unfortunately it is unlikely to get better any time soon. Workers should aggressively document problems in the workplace and defend themselves as well as they can from unlawful activities. If you believe an employer or potential employer violated your labor and employment rights then you should talk to a Colorado employment lawyer right away. You may need to act within a short period of time to preserve your claims. You may also want to talk to an employment lawyer about the consequences of taking legal action against an employer versus your other options to avoid an unlawful situation.