In a world contending with no end of economic troubles, a fresh source of concern now looms: the prospect of a confrontation between union dockworkers and their employers at some of the most critical ports on earth.
The potential conflict centers on negotiations over a new contract for more than 22,000 union workers employed at 29 ports along the West Coast of the United States. Nearly three-fourths work at the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the primary gateway for goods shipped to the United States from Asia, and a locus of problems afflicting the global supply chain.
The contract for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expires at the end of June. For those whose livelihoods are tied to ports — truckers, logistics companies, retailers — July 1 marks the beginning of a period of grave uncertainty.
A labor impasse could worsen the floating traffic jams that have kept dozens of ships waiting in the Pacific before they can pull up to the docks. That could aggravate shortages and send already high prices for consumer goods soaring.
impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and as China imposes new Covid restrictions on industry.
Understand the Supply Chain Crisis
The dockworkers have moved unprecedented volumes of cargo during the pandemic, even as at least two dozen succumbed to Covid-19, according to the union. They are aware that many of the shipping terminals in Southern California are controlled by global carriers that have been racking up record profits while sharply increasing cargo rates — a fact cited by President Biden in his recent State of the Union address as he promised a “crackdown” to alleviate inflation.
With ports now capturing attention in Washington, some within the shipping industry express confidence that negotiations will yield a deal absent a disruptive slowdown or strike.
“There’s too much at stake for both sides,” Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said during a recent interview in his office overlooking towering cranes and stacks of containers. “There’s an incentive because the nation is watching.”
“If they don’t come to a compromise, then freight will get permanently diverted to the East Coast,” Mr. Matinifar said.
Animating contract talks is the popular notion that the longshoremen are a privileged class within the supply chain, using the union to protect their ranks — a source of resentment among other workers.
“They treat us like we’re nobodies,” said Mr. Chilton, the truck driver. “The way they talk to us, they’re very rude.”
traced to the outbreak of Covid-19, which triggered an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a halt to production. Here’s what happened next:
A reduction in shipping. With fewer goods being made and fewer people with paychecks to spend at the start of the pandemic, manufacturers and shipping companies assumed that demand would drop sharply. But that proved to be a mistake, as demand for some items would surge.
Demand for protective gear spiked. In early 2020, the entire planet suddenly needed surgical masks and gowns. Most of these goods were made in China. As Chinese factories ramped up production, cargo vessels began delivering gear around the globe.
Then, a shipping container shortage. Shipping containers piled up in many parts of the world after they were emptied. The result was a shortage of containers in the one country that needed them the most: China, where factories would begin pumping out goods in record volumes.
Demand for durable goods increased. The pandemic shifted Americans’ spending from eating out and attending events to office furniture, electronics and kitchen appliances – mostly purchased online. The spending was also encouraged by government stimulus programs.
Strained supply chains. Factory goods swiftly overwhelmed U.S. ports. Swelling orders further outstripped the availability of shipping containers, and the cost of shipping a container from Shanghai to Los Angeles skyrocketed tenfold.
Union officials declined to discuss their objectives for a new contract.
Mr. McKenna, the maritime association chief executive, said the union had yet to outline demands while declining to engage in discussions before May.
He expected that the union would resist efforts to expand automation at the ports, a traditional point of contention. He said greater automation — such as adding self-driving vehicles and robotics to move cargo — was unavoidable in ports in dense urban places like Los Angeles. There, land is tight, so growth must come from increasing efficiency, rather than physically expanding.
The last time the I.L.W.U. contract expired, West Coast ports suffered months of debilitating disruptions — the source of enduring recriminations.
Terminal operators accused dockworkers of slowing operations to generate pressure for a deal. The union countered that employers were the ones creating problems.
Some dockworkers question whether terminal owners are sincerely seeking to speed up cargo handling, given that shipping rates have soared amid chaos at the ports.
Jaime Hipsher, 45, drives a so-called utility tractor rig — equipment used to move containers — at a pair of Southern California shipping terminals. One is operated by A.P. Moller-Maersk, a Danish conglomerate whose profits nearly tripled last year, reaching $24 billion.
She said maintenance of equipment was spotty, producing frequent breakdowns, while the terminals were often understaffed — two problems that could be fixed with more spending.
A Maersk spokesman, Tom Boyd, rejected that characterization.
“Freight rates have been impacted by the global Covid-19 recovery and the demand outpacing supply,” he said in an emailed statement. “Ships at anchor are not productive, nor are they earning revenue against a backdrop of large fixed costs.”
That Ms. Hipsher spends her nights on the docks represents an unexpected turn in her life.
Her father was a longshoreman. He urged her to attend college and do something that involved wearing business attire, in contrast to how he spent his working hours — climbing a skinny ladder to the top of ships and loading coal onto vessels.
“He would come home after work and he would have coal dust coming out of his ears, out of his nose,” Ms. Hipsher recalled. “His hands would just be completely black.”
But in 2004, when she was working as a hairstylist, her brother — also a longshoreman — suggested that she enter a lottery for the right to become a casual dockworker.
The ports had changed, her brother said. Growing numbers of women were employed.
Eighteen years later, Ms. Hipsher has gained the security of seniority, health benefits and a pension.
As contract talks approach, she pushes back against the notion that the union poses a threat to the global economy.
“You’re complaining about my wages, thinking that my wages are the source of inflation, and we don’t deserve it,” she said. “Well, look at the billions that the owners are making.”
Above all, issues around managing child care and work that had long been considered private family matters were suddenly out in the open, turning the needs of working parents into a subject that resonated in conference rooms and state capitals across the country.
The potential implications were profound: Not only could the pandemic help recalibrate the answer to a question like, “Who picks up a sick child from school?” but it could also radically alter whether workplaces look askance at the parent who takes time away from work to do to so. More fundamentally, any number of policy ideas that the pandemic inspired, if realized, could make it easier for working parents, especially women, to balance work and child care, as well as increase gender equality at work and at home and upend entrenched gender norms about caregiving.
“It just feels like an Overton window, where you have increased public dialogue but also you have public will to really change and reflect on women’s experiences in the work force,” C. Nicole Mason, the president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said in an interview this summer.
Roughly half of mothers with children under 18 were employed full-time last year. For white-collar women and women with office jobs, who were more likely to benefit from increased work flexibility, the possible reforms were uniquely promising.
But the optimism is fading, partially because of Washington. The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress indicated early in the year that federal paid family and medical leave was a priority in the president’s domestic spending package — but the plan was pared down from 12 weeks to four weeks, then dropped entirely from the framework President Biden announced on Thursday.
“As you can see, the window is closing,” Dr. Mason said this past week.
Now, as the pandemic recedes and everyday life begins to return to normal, some working mothers are worried that nothing much will change.
“People are finally seeing how important child care is in our society,” said Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia who studies the intersection of work and family life. “But is that going to translate into a way that our society values caregiving? I’m less optimistic about that.”
Some groups have found being productive particularly challenging during the pandemic. Half of parents working from home with children under 18, and nearly 40 percent of all remote workers ages 18 to 49, said it had been difficult for them to be able to get their work done without interruptions, according to the Pew Research Center. Parents were also more likely than those without children to say they had difficulty meeting deadlines and completing projects on time while working at home.
It is possible that people who are working from home — a relatively small percentage of workers compared to those who cannot do their jobs remotely — also have a false sense of how much they are working. In effect, people who are working at home may be using the wrong denominator when calculating the portion of their time they spend doing work, Mr. Syverson, the University of Chicago economist, said. That could make them feel as if they are working less when they are really working the same amount. (This may not be the case for those working remotely in jobs where their output can be more quantified easily, such as sales representatives.)
“I think there is something to the fact that a lot of workers who work at home are never sort of on the clock versus off the clock,” he said. “Rather than dividing a day’s work by eight hours in the office, they divide the day’s work by the 16 hours they are awake.”
As employers continue trying to figure out how to engage their employees and entice them back to empty offices, how to get the most from their work force has become a management puzzle with wide-ranging economic implications. Already, some have announced plans to give employees more flexibility — a nod to the idea that total output and how people feel are intertwined. Twitter said that employees who are able to do their jobs remotely could work from home forever.
Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab at New America and the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” said American culture has long believed that working longer means working harder and being more productive, despite the flaws in that way of thinking. She noted the idea that there is a “productivity cliff” — workers are only productive for a certain number of hours, after which their productivity declines and they may begin making mistakes.
“We’ve long had this really erroneous connection between long work must mean hard work and productivity, and it never has,” she said.
Productivity may also no longer be the be-all end-all it once was.
The pandemic has prompted a collective awakening, borne from a constant and immediate fear of contagion and death, over cultural priorities. For many people, especially the percentage of workers who remained employed and are able to work remotely, personal productivity — at least in the sense that it means producing the most at work, in the most number of hours — is no longer necessarily even the goal.
HONG KONG — The noodle shop was doing a brisk Friday evening business, with diners crowded at shared tables. Eni Lestari, a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong, spotted a seat near another woman and hurried to claim it.
Suddenly, the woman stood, and, according to Ms. Lestari, declared that she would not sit near her.
She did not give a reason. But hours earlier, the Hong Kong government had ordered virtually all of the city’s 370,000 migrant domestic workers — mostly Southeast Asian women in an otherwise largely racially homogeneous city — to take coronavirus tests and vaccines. Officials said they were “high risk” for infection, because of their habit of “mingling” with other migrant workers.
“They don’t think about us as humans who also have a social life,” said Ms. Lestari, who came to Hong Kong from Indonesia 20 years ago. “The frustration and anger of the Hong Kong public during Covid-19 — now it’s directed at the domestic workers.”
exposed the plight of migrant and other low-paid workers, whose labor undergirds local economies but is often unrecognized or exploited. Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest densities of migrant domestic workers, who make up about 10 percent of the working population.
excludes migrant workers.
In the pandemic, government officials and employers have invoked public health to impose more restrictions.
Domestic workers — euphemistically called “helpers” — have described being barred from leaving their employers’ homes on their day off, in the name of preventing infection. Those who can leave say they are harassed by the police and passers-by. The government has repeatedly accused the workers of violating social distancing restrictions, though other groups, including expatriates and wealthy locals, have been at the heart of the city’s major outbreaks.
Officials singled out domestic workers with their first, and only, vaccination order. The requirement did not apply to the workers’ employers, with whom they are in daily contact.
is high across Hong Kong, Law Chi-kwong, the city’s labor secretary, said in a news conference that the workers were in a “different situation” than locals. If they did not want to get vaccinated, he added, “they can leave Hong Kong.”
Workers denounced the announcement as racist. Officials from the Philippines and Indonesia — Hong Kong’s primary sources of migrant labor — objected. A few days later, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, withdrew the vaccination requirement, though she maintained the only consideration had been public health.
But the testing requirement remained — and last week, Mrs. Lam ordered a second round, even though the first had yielded just three positive cases.
“What is the scientific basis?” said Dolores Balladares, a Filipina worker and spokeswoman for Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, an advocacy group. “Are they not fed up with thinking that migrant domestic workers are virus carriers?”
proposed locking down workers on their day off. She did not propose any restrictions during the week, when they often buy groceries and run other errands.
Mr. Law, the labor secretary, rejected that proposal at the time, noting that the infection rate among domestic workers was half of the rate in the general public.
Maricel Jaime, a Filipina worker who has been in Hong Kong for six years, said she had come to expect constant supervision on Sundays, when most domestic workers are off. During Christmas, she and her friends were careful to gather in small groups and to maintain distance. Still, whenever they briefly got close — to pass around food, or to retrieve something from a bag — officers hurried over to chastise them, she said.
“The police are around us, always checking. Even if we are following the rules, the police are still hassling us,” Ms. Jaime said.
Puja Kapai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies ethnic minorities’ rights.
immediately denied that the rule was discriminatory. (He had, however, previously said that restricting access to restaurants by vaccination status could be discriminatory.)
Despite the attention that the pandemic has brought to the difficulties faced by migrant workers, Professor Kapai said she doubted that governments would embrace reform. Hong Kong’s economy has been battered by the outbreak, making pay raises for domestic workers unlikely, and few local residents have spoken out in the workers’ defense.
“I don’t think there is much of an incentive for the Hong Kong government to do anything differently,” she said.
Still, some workers are trying to create change.
Ms. Jaime, who is also a leader in a union for domestic workers, said she spends her Sundays trying to inform other workers of their rights — while complying with social distancing rules.
“I have fear to go outside because of Covid,” she said. “But I have so much fear that this kind of discrimination will get worse and worse.”
New York City on Wednesday sued the fast-food giant Chipotle Mexican Grill over what it says are hundreds of thousands of violations of a fair scheduling law at several dozen stores.
Workers are owed over $150 million in relief for the violations, according to the complaint, and financial penalties could far exceed that amount, making it the largest action the city has brought under the law.
The suit cites violations of the so-called Fair Workweek Law that include changing employees’ schedules without sufficient notice or extra pay; requiring employees to work consecutive shifts without sufficient time off or extra pay; and failure to offer workers additional shifts before hiring new employees to fill them.
The allegations cover the period from November 2017, when the law took effect, to September 2019, when the city filed an initial suit involving a handful of Chipotle stores. The new complaint, filed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, said that Chipotle had made some attempt to comply with the law since 2019, but that violations were continuing.
can exact a large physical and emotional toll on workers and their children.
Today in Business
Under the law, fast-food employers must provide workers with their schedules at least 14 days in advance — or, if not, obtain written consent for them and pay them a premium for the shifts.
Employers must also provide workers with at least 11 hours between shifts on consecutive days or obtain written consent and pay them $100. The hope is to discourage the practice of forcing workers to work late into the evening and then help open a store in the morning, known as “clopening.”
The provision requiring employers to offer workers additional shifts before hiring new workers was intended to make it easier for workers to earn enough income to sustain themselves.
Employers in fast-food and retail operations often hire more workers at fewer hours to add scheduling flexibility, said Saravanan Kesavan, an expert in retail operations at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Kesavan has conducted research showing that financial performance can actually improve when employers provide more stable and predictable schedules.
The complaint also accuses the company of violating the city’s paid sick leave law, which was enacted in 2014 and mandated up to 40 hours of paid leave per year. (The ceiling grew to 56 hours beginning this January for larger employers.) The city contends that Chipotle illegally denied requests for time off, required workers to find their own replacements or did not pay workers for time they took.
According to the complaint, all of the estimated 6,500 Chipotle employees in New York City from November 2017 to September 2019 were affected by violations involving scheduling and sick leave, and on average they experienced more than three scheduling violations a week.
became sick after eating at Chipotle restaurants in 2015 and 2016, some from E. coli bacteria, leading to a sharp decline in the company’s stock price and threatening the image it had cultivated as a purveyor of “food with integrity.”
Last year, Chipotle was fined nearly $1.4 million over accusations that it regularly violated Massachusetts child labor laws from 2015 to 2019. The company settled the case without admitting violations.
But the company has posted solid sales growth during the pandemic, with revenue of $6 billion last year, and its stock price has soared.
According to the New York City complaint, Chipotle frequently violated the law by either destroying or failing to maintain or produce records attesting to its scheduling policies.
“Chipotle failed to produce certain categories of scheduling information the department requested, in part because it had destroyed paper schedule records,” the complaint states. “However, the evidence Chipotle did produce, as well as evidence that employees provided, shows that Chipotle did not begin to implement key elements of the Fair Workweek Law in any of its New York City locations until approximately September 2019.”
As he sat at his computer on a recent Sunday afternoon preparing for the workweek ahead, Jonathan Frostick, a program manager at an investment bank in London, said he could not breathe. His chest tightened and his ears started to pop. He was having a heart attack.
His first thoughts were of how this would disrupt his work life.
“I needed to meet with my manager tomorrow,” Mr. Frostick, who works for HSBC, wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “This isn’t convenient.”
Later, as he convalesced in a hospital bed, Mr. Frostick began to examine his life, he wrote. Beneath a photo of himself in his hospital bed, he posted new vows for his life going forward:
“I’m not spending all day on Zoom anymore.”
“I’m restructuring my approach to work.”
He would no longer put up with workplace drama. “Life is too short,” he wrote.
Lastly: “I want to spend more time with my family.”
Since he described his epiphany a week ago, his post has been liked over 200,000 times. It has received more than 10,000 comments from readers describing how their own brushes with death had led them to step back from work and take stock of the way they had been living their lives.
ennui, dread and more work-related stress during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even those who have been lucky enough to keep their jobs have questioned their purpose in life as they spend long hours on Zoom calls and answer emails into the night.
At the same time, employees who have managed to strike a better balance between their jobs and their personal lives during the pandemic are now reckoning with a return to the office, causing them to re-evaluate how much time they want to dedicate to work.
“I know countless people in the last few years who have suffered life-threatening illnesses just simply because there is no downtime — always on call,” a management consultant from Alberta, Canada, wrote in reply to Mr. Frostick’s post. “It’s absolutely detrimental to our health, but we’re built on the existence that we always have to keep pushing.”
Another person described how she had became so burned out at work that she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
interview with Bloomberg News, Mr. Frostick, a father of three young children, said that during the pandemic he and his colleagues had spent a “disproportionate amount of time on Zoom calls.”
Before the heart attack, Mr. Frostick had been working 12-hour days, he said, missing his colleagues and suffering from the isolation of working from home.
“We’re not able to have those other conversations off the side of a desk or by the coffee machine, or take a walk and go and have that chat,” Mr. Frostick told Bloomberg. “That has been quite profound, not just in my work, but across the professional-services industry.”
HSBC did not immediately respond to a message for comment.
On Wednesday, Mr. Frostick thanked the thousands of people who had written him and wrote that he was now able to move around his house for two to three hours at a time.
Later, he wrote another post that indicated he had moved from soul-searching to trying to answer profound philosophical questions.
“Who am I? It’s like a riddle my mind cannot solve,” he wrote. “I have no idea who I am anymore. This is going to take some time … Can you answer who you are?”
When these sorts of companies enact work-life policies, why don’t they seem to stick?
Look at the reward structure. You have an OK base salary, but then the bonus is allocated based on how you’re stacking up at the end of the year against your peers. It’s like a tournament. It’s like a race. And all you know is that the people next to you, against whom you will be measured, are just as smart as you. They work just as hard. And so the only lever you have is try to outwork them. These reward structures perpetuate this work ethic.
When an organization says “we value work-life balance, we want our people to not work on weekends, we want blah blah blah” — there is still this competitive structure where people have an incentive to work all they can because others are doing the same thing, and only winners get rewarded.
Churning through talent may work for a company. But you found that many employees choose these grueling schedules, even when they come at great personal cost. One associate told you: “I work hard because I want to.”
The people who get hired at banks have been through performance competitions all their lives. When I talk to students at the beginning of their undergraduate career and ask them, “what do you want to be?” very few want to go into banking.
So what happens? When these firms descend onto campus, people start competing because that’s what they have been conditioned to do throughout their lives. They chase after what everyone else chases after, regardless of whether they actually care about the work. Regardless of whether there are consequences or not, these people want to win.
This is maybe the final part that locks people into these intense work schedules. It is the idea that there is a cadre of individuals who are the best and brightest, and if you don’t keep up the pace you’ll end up at some kind of second-tier firm — part of an undefinable “rest.”
What’s so bad about that?
The people in the best and the brightest group, they have opportunities, they earn a lot, they work with other interesting people, they work on global deals. The rest push paper with uninteresting colleagues and over time, you’ll become like them. That’s what people sincerely believe. They believe that if you don’t work for an elite organization, you fall into an abyss of personal social status descent.
A former Citigroup analyst in New York who left investment banking last summer said that in normal times managers would often be busy traveling, or would leave the office at night, which allowed analysts periods to focus on their existing work without being assigned new tasks. Those breaks disappeared during the pandemic.
“They were always available and working late,” he said of his managers during the pandemic. “They knew we were stuck working late. We couldn’t do anything else. So there was no separation from work and home.”
The analyst, who worked at Citi for three years, said virtual work was particularly hard on the first-year employees. “They weren’t able to learn how to be a banker in the office. They learned it virtually, and it’s so much harder,” he said. Working virtually, he believes, has also made it more difficult for new analysts to support each other. “They just get the downside to banking,” he said. “They don’t get the upside, the relationships.”
JPMorgan and Citigroup declined to comment.
As the work has become more isolating, the amount of it has exploded. At this point in the year, according to Dealogic, the value of debt issues are running a third higher than the previous 10-year average, acquisitions are more than double, and initial public offerings are some 15 times higher, propelled by the surge in blank-check shell companies known as SPACs, or special purpose acquisition companies.
“We recognize that our people are very busy, because business is strong and volumes are at historic levels,” Goldman Sachs said in a statement in response to the first-year analysts’ presentation. “A year into Covid, people are understandably quite stretched, and that’s why we are listening to their concerns and taking multiple steps to address them.”
On Sunday, Goldman’s chief executive, David Solomon, sent a memo to employees in which he promised to enforce the firm’s policy against working on Saturdays, to shift bankers to the busiest desks and to hire more entry-level employees. A day later, Citi’s C.E.O., Jane Fraser, introduced “Zoom-free Fridays” and said that most employees could work from home for two days per week when the firm reopens its offices.
Other banks decided to work in the medium they know best: Money. Credit Suisse on Wednesday said that it would give lower-ranking employees a $20,000 bonus to acknowledge their work during a period of “unprecedented deal volume.”