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America’s hourly workers

Written by John Caplan, President of North America and Europe at Alibaba.com, for Forbes

Across the country, employees who are paid an hourly wage for their services account for 82.3 million workers 16 years and older, representing well over half (58.1 percent) of all wage and salary workers in 2019, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hourly workers have always been the backbone of the US economy, and the importance of the work they do has only become heightened during this pandemic crisis. Yet 4 of 10 Americans have less than US $400 on hand for a crisis or emergency.

As demand for housing and ecommerce has risen, employment and job openings in fields ranging from residential construction to package delivery to warehousing and hospitality have come to exceed pre-pandemic levels. Many economists expect this strengthening job market will continue to grow even as the impacts of the coronavirus lessen, and that service jobs, in retail and restaurants, will also see major advances as life slowly returns to normal and the world opens back up again. Here are the experiences, challenges, and compelling stories of four hourly workers during these unprecedented times.

The work that didn’t stop

A booming housing market is filled with opportunities such as with Moss, a national family-owned construction firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and for workers like Ramon Aceves, a carpenter who works there.

Driving this expansion is that many businesses view this time of social distancing as an opportunity to upgrade without disturbing their usual customers, who are mostly staying at home. Furthermore, employees who are working remotely desire more space, a trend that’s likely to continue as remote work in some form or another is expected to persist longer term.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Aceves’s responsibilities have grown as he moves from project to project. “I’m inspired to go to work every day,” said Aceves, “because I’m able to make a difference.”

The frontline hero

While demands on frontline health workers who do the critical job of connecting local families to life-changing care have always been rigorous, they’re even more so — and more widely appreciated — now.

Thomas Wobby, a paramedic at Pro EMS, an ambulance service in Cambridge, Massachusetts, works 48 hours a week in the ambulance in addition to running training sessions for new EMTs and paramedics.

“Demand for healthcare has been out of control,” said Wobby. “In April, I was deployed to New York City with FEMA for federal relief during one of their largest COVID-19 spikes. Pro EMS had four ambulances there for two months straight, and I was there for two weeks before rotating out. Being there was insane. There is really no other way to describe it. Some days, we would work until 2:30am ET then the bus would pick us up at 5:30am ET to start again.”

“I have an exciting and important job. I go to work every day and I have no idea what I am going to get into, but I know I will have the opportunity to help someone or help someone learn how to help someone. And I’m lucky I work for a company that really cares about their people; the pandemic really opened my eyes to that. I am proud of how we’ve been able to adapt and pivot during COVID-19 to keep employees safe and working.”

A culture that lived on and became stronger

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of a supportive office and workplace culture. While we’ve always known this to be true, the work-from-home revolution has put a fine point on the issue, and the positive impact of having 360-degree community support from the people you work with is undeniable.

Smith Garibay, an assembler at Securitech Group, a Maspeth, New York-based high-security door lock manufacturer, is thankful to his management team for cultivating a warm work environment and one where good work is appreciated. “I started working here two weeks before the initial lockdown in New York City,” said Garibay. “My experience has been great because our company leaders are flexible and accommodating as long as the work is getting done.”

The strong culture of respect has been evident as employees embraced protocols, like wearing masks and social distancing, to keep each other and their families safe. His colleagues know that the pandemic is personal to us all and feel a sense of empathy and responsibility for one another.

A Pandemic Career Pivot

Patrick Lydon lost his job as a bartender at the Old Town Bar, where he had worked for 14 years, when New York City implemented a round of COVID-19 shutdowns in November 2020. He’d already been working to transition out of hospitality into real estate. But the shutdown pushed him to pursue that goal at warp speed.

“In some ways,” said Lydon, “the COVID shutdown and pandemic was the mother bird pushing the baby bird out of the nest. I’m fortunate that I have been around the bar and restaurant and real estate industries my whole life, so I had some comfort in pivoting — but it’s not always easy to do that.”

One of the things he’s noticed is that many of the incredibly talented and hardworking people in the hospitality industry are now putting their skills to different use — whether it’s a dream they’ve always wanted to pursue like starting their own company, or something they’ve had a mild interest in doing, or something that they just discovered.

Now in early 2021, Lydon is working in residential real estate at Lydon Realty, and would eventually like to branch into commercial. It’s a role that still allows him to interact with people, and he loves helping families find homes. As it turns out, his years at Old Town served him well. “Talking to people from all around the world — from all walks of life, backgrounds, and careers — has helped me find common ground and connect with buyers and sellers at listing appointments,” said Lydon. “So it has been a pretty smooth transition in spite of the chaos happening in the world. I am lucky in that sense.”

Lydon remains optimistic about the future of the restaurant and bar industry. He’s excited to see new restaurants and bars open up by people with new ideas on how businesses should be run and is hopeful there will be more justice for restaurant and bar owners when they do.

The unsung heroes who show up and have kept the economy going during the toughest of times deserve our respect and deserve to be paid fairly for the work that they do. A living wage is a basic right, and I am hopeful that we are entering an era of balance and fairness for incomes.

This week's #B2BTuesday Tip:

Find out what motivates your employees. Give them challenging tasks to develop their skills and empower them to make their own decisions.

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