COVID-19, from where I sit

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What will things be like after COVID-19?   At least in rich countries, there will be a time after this pandemic.  I do not think it will be soon.  And, for reasons not here pertinent, I am unlikely to see it. But I think I see, perhaps darkly, some features of your future.  We now know that parts of many jobs—and all of some jobs—will be done remotely. ‘Working from home,’ we now say.

Some predictions about how that could change our lives will prove as comically wrong as travel by jetpack.  It will not stop the climate crisis, eliminate cars, or move all shopping online.  It will not reverse—it may exacerbate—the grotesque inequalities of wealth and power that scar capitalist societies.  ‘Essential workers’ will need to show up, and they will still be paid—if they are lucky—no more than their marginal product. In the medium term, the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ will grow, so their wages may even go down.

But for people whose access to work is limited mainly by disability, especially by mobility impairments, things may improve.  At least, they will if equality and employment law remain roughly as they are in the more decent societies.  Many countries have something like the following regime:  employers may not discriminate against people on grounds of disability, and they have a positive duty to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ or ‘adjustments’ in employment so that people with disabilities can participate with dignity and on fair terms.  What is ‘reasonable’ is contested.  An employee has to be able to do the job, but need not do it in the time, manner, or with the efficiency of one with no disability.  The point of equality law is to put a thumb on the scale in favour of disabled employees.  For nearly all employers that means a cost, and often a nuisance as well.  Compliance is therefore patchy.

As my own mobility declined (I use a wheelchair), I discovered that even attentive employers struggle to understand, never mind accommodate, disability.  I have never encountered ill-will or indifference, but plenty of incomprehension and dithering. And, incredibly, I have seen institutions that draw on the public purse build or renovate in ways that introduce new barriers to access.  (The distinguished Canadian lawyer, David Lepofsky, rightly says that this should be a red line.)  But here is the good news.  Everyone now knows that significant aspects of some jobs can be done off-site.  We know this is possible because it is actual.  (Legal philosophers: take note.)  Classes, seminars, lectures, and meetings are being offered in new ways because, well, for now we have no choice.

Some of these are imperfect substitutes for ‘the real thing’.  They will be dropped, as general practices, just as soon as it is safe to do so.  But—and here is my point—for some employees they will become not only feasible but required forms of accommodation.  An academic ‘manager’ once told me, ‘We already have the most flexible work conditions there could be!’  They did not mean to suggest a flexibility including the right to work at a time or place that accommodates a disability.  (Nor did they have in mind casualized teachers: they meant tenured law professors.)   But COVID-19 has taught us that there are, after all, flexibilities we never noticed.

Not everyone who could ‘work from home’ should have a right to work from home. And, really, how many would want to?  But some should have that right, including some people with disabilities.  I would rather we had learned this some other way, but at least we have learned it.  I hope you remember it when this disaster passes.