COVID-19 Ethical Dilemmas

The Verge has a story out about the challenges facing self-driving car operators in the COVID era.

“Waymo and Cruise allow their staffing vendors, Transdev North America and Aerotek, respectively, to make decisions regarding when it is safe to test and how to respond to driver concerns. But drivers say those companies can be slow to act, communications are often contradictory, and they feel pressured to keep working despite unsafe conditions.”

Self-driving car operators, particularly at larger organizations like Waymo and Cruise, tend not to be employees, but rather are often contract workers, often employed by an outside staffing agency. This state of affairs is hardly limited to self-driving cars — contract workers employed by staffing agencies are so common in the Bay Area, for engineering, program management, sanitation, and more.

Even companies whose hourly workers are employees, for example firms with large retail or operations centers, face this COVID challenge. Salaried headquarters staff who can work productively from home, while the hourly employees have to be physically present. The division is really about whether you work with ideas or with the physical world. Doctors and dentists have to go to the office for the same reason.

The Verge reports that Waymo is paying its contractors to stay home, although the story only mentions this in passing, and then proceeds to relay other reports that Waymo contractors are pressured to come to work. So it’s hard to know what to make of that.

I confess the best response to this situation eludes me. It feels right to say that companies should pay their workers to stay home and not risk their health, but it is only a short-term solution for a private company to pay people to not work. In the long-term, those companies will struggle to fund those costs.

There is a public health case to be made for some sort of tax or penalty on firms whose employees catch COVID. That doesn’t solve the wildfire problem that also comes up in the piece, though.

Perhaps the best solution is meticulous record-keeping, so that employers can verify that their teams are in fact staying safe while working.

I can’t wait for COVID to end 😦

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