When companies dispatched office staff to work remotely from home, cut business trips and canceled business lunches, they also eliminated the jobs cleaning their offices and hotel rooms, driving them around town and serving them meals.
For this army of service workers across urban America, the pandemic risks becoming more than a short-term economic shock. If white-collar America doesn’t return to the office, service workers will be left with nobody to serve.
The worry is particularly acute in cities, which for decades have sustained tens of millions of jobs for workers without a college education. Now remote work is adding to other pressures that have stunted opportunities. The collapse of retailers like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus has wiped out many low-wage jobs. The implosion of tourism in cities like New York and San Francisco will end many more.
Fear is budding that even when the pandemic has passed, the economy may not provide the jobs it once did.
“Some law firms are finding that it is more productive for their lawyers to stay at home,” said Kristinia Bellamy, a janitor who was laid off from her job cleaning offices at a high-rise housing legal firms and other white-collar businesses in Midtown Manhattan. “This might be the beginning of the end for these commercial office buildings.”
Consider Nike’s decision in the spring to allow most employees at its headquarters in the Portland area to work remotely. Aramark, which runs the cafeteria and catering at Nike, furloughed many of its workers. With no need for full services anticipated “for an undefined period,” Aramark says, 378 employees — waiters, cooks, cashiers and others — now face permanent layoff on Sept. 25.