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Leveraging technological change to address racial injustice and worker shortages in frontline care delivery
  1. Adam Seth Litwin
  1. School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Professor Adam Seth Litwin, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-3901, USA; aslitwin{at}

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As the seemingly never-ending battle against COVID-19 soldiers on, women and POC (people of colour) constitute the overwhelming majority of troops drawn into battle. They disproportionately staff many of the frontline healthcare delivery jobs most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, and now its most virulent mutation, the Delta variant. These jobs include ‘enrolled’ (in the UK) or ‘licensed’ (in the USA) practical nurses (LPNs), certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and in-home carers, all of whom put themselves and their families at great personal risk for the benefit of their patients.

Pandemic conditions may be a relatively new development for these workers, but the abhorrent quality of frontline healthcare jobs is not. While ‘job quality’ remains a subjective and elusive construct, we can all imagine a ‘high-quality’ bundle of economic, sociological and psychological attributes—generous or at least sufficient pay and benefits, job security and opportunities for advancement, a modicum of discretion over and interest in one’s work, and perhaps some control over one’s working time.1 2 We might even hope that over time, technological advances including smartphones and robots could somehow encourage an upward drift in the incidence of all of these sought-after ascriptions. But for decades, technology-centred automation has eroded job quality, making it easier for managers to squeeze wages and ignore poor employment conditions.

Ironically, COVID-19 provides a rare opportunity. With its lead foot on the gas pedal, it accelerates workplace technological change—all while managers and policymakers sit squarely in the driver’s seat. If these sectoral leaders seize the wheel, they can steer the coach and the economy away from technology-centred automation and toward the path of work-centred technification. In fact, a recent report undertaken in the USA suggests that for all of the misery wrought by COVID-19, it could actually induce leaders—even in that fragmented system—to implement emerging technologies …

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  • Contributors ASL was the sole author of this commentary.

  • Funding Funding for the project underlying this commentary was provided by the Ford Foundation (#0175-1196), the Open Society Foundations (#OR2018-44194), the SEIU California State Council, the WK Kellogg Foundation (#P0130982), Working Partnerships USA, the David M and Abby Joseph Cohen Summer Research Fund and the Cornell University ILR School ‘Technology and the Future of Work’ theme project.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.