Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Mar 21: Coronavirus cases in New York surpass 1,000. New Jersey issues a stay-at-home order. The Food and Drug Administration approves the first “point-of-care” coronavirus test which can reportedly relay results in just 45 minutes. Marriott announces it plans to furlough thousands of corporate employees at its headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.*

From the Cutting Room Floor...

Today, the day that the number of global cases passes 300,000, hotels and restaurants are closing by the thousands. Even in businesses where person-to-person interactions could go online, like advertising firms and publishing houses, layoffs are rampant. The Department of Labor reported today that first-time unemployment insurance claims (for people who have been laid off from a job recently) rose to 3, 283,000 this week—an increase of 3,001,000 from last week. This is the highest level of seasonally adjusted initial claims that the DoL has seen since they started tracking this number. The previous record was a high of 695,000 back in October of 1982. The DoL has had to change the scale of its charts and there is no reason to think that this number won’t keep growing.

As usual, those nearest the bottom economically feel the brunt most severely, and workers in particular industries will surely suffer more than others. Travel, retail, transportation—anything that relies on physical work done outside of the house and close to strangers—will feel the pinch immediately. The “gig” economy, which is full of service workers doing piecemeal work with an almost non-existent economic safety net, is in full swing. It seems like any business that relies on people paying for an ad-hoc service while in public–bars, theaters, clubs, church, and all the salons, are going to have to close.

I’m noticing that job titles with the word “associate” in them are turning out to be least critical and most vulnerable: hotel associate, sales associate, service associate. That term, it seems to me, has been used ubiquitously for the last twenty years to do immeasurable harm to America’s working class. I remember when the term started showing up, all based on the argument that it provided a more respectful job title. Instead of being a janitor, you now could be a sanitation associate. Instead of being a secretary, you now could be an administrative associate. But the term did not confer more respect or money. It didn’t offer union membership or collective bargaining. It is a false and empty title, used to make laborers feel more connected to the white-collar world, to ensure that they identify less as workers and more with their bosses. It is a prime example of the ways that language can be mobilized by those in power to obscure the exploitation of workers and prevent the growth of class consciousness. These are also the positions that make the least amount of money. These are the people who are now filing for unemployment after working hard for their adult lives.

Not surprisingly, upper management is suffering somewhat less. Meanwhile, hotel staff find themselves “reduced,” their weeks or hours “shortened.” Two days ago, Sorenson recorded this message to his employees. It went viral. Just today I notice that Forbes has hailed this video as “a lesson in authentic leadership.”[1] Here is a portion of the transcript of this video, released as Marriott furloughs two-thirds of its payroll.[2]:

“I’m here to give you an update on the coronavirus… and the steps we are taking to respond to it…

Our team was a bit concerned about using a video today because of my new, bald look. Let me just say that my new look is exactly what was expected as a result my medical treatments…

COVID-19 is like nothing we have seen before. Here are the facts, COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden impact on our business than 9-11 and the 2008 financial crisis combined… The restrictions on travel, gatherings of people, and social distancing, is … depressing demand for our hotels…

Given these circumstances, we have been forced to take proactive steps. We have stopped all hotel initiatives for 2020 and have gone dark on all brand, marketing, and advertising during this period.

Both Mr. Marriott and I will not be taking any salary for the 2020 year. On properties around the world, we are moving to shorten work weeks …. At the property level, this includes closing food and beverage outlets, reducing staff, and closing floors of hotels.”

@MarriottIntl, “A message to Marriott International associates from President and CEO Arne Sorenson,” 03/21/2020.

It is a lovely message, which seems heartfelt, even if it only gives cold comfort to those who can’t pay their rent. Mentioning his cancer is a nice touch. I wonder if he has to worry about whether or not he can afford the premiums and deductibles that his health insurance still requires him to pay. Admittedly, for Americans right now, in this world that we have created, we are torn between wanting everyone to stay home to stop the virus and be safe, and feeling deeply sorry for people who are left with nothing when they do just that. We have not created a society where people can go home for the public good and also not starve or be evicted. I know that most Americans see this as an inherent and unavoidable paradox, but it actually does not have to be this way. There are lots of countries where people pay into a system that protects everyone, where getting healthcare is not always tied to having work, especially in moments like this.   

Perhaps because of the exploitation and absurdity of this system, I am not scandalized when I read the story about Robert William Cullum, a worker at the Gestamp automotive manufacturing plant in Union, South Carolina, who found a way to use the virus to get out of work. He told his co-workers that his son at home had COVID-19. His bosses sent him home to quarantine for two weeks. Evidently, a rumor got around at the plant that Robert also had COVID and people started calling in, saying they felt unsafe coming to work. The plant faced serious worker shortages. Eventually, exasperated, the executives at the plant called the police. They needed to know what had happened to Robert.

“A Union man was charged with breach of peace after reporting to work falsely claiming he had been exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus through his son, Union County Sheriff David Taylor said.

Robert William Cullum, 41, of Keenan Avenue, Union, was charged with breach of the peace, a misdemeanor, according to the arrest warrant.

This is the second Upstate man accused of lying about the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Last week, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office charged Jeffrey Long, 31, of Inman, with breaching the peace and forgery after claiming to have the coronavirus, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Chuck Wright said Long submitted a fake doctor’s note to his bosses at Sitel in Spartanburg. The company shut down immediately to deep-clean its facilities and has since reopened, according to reports.

What’s astonishing is that this wasn’t the first time someone in that county used the virus to get out of work. Saying that you have COVID is like yelling “FIRE” in a theatre, except that the theatre is the planet and you can use it to skip out of your lousy job, assuming you can figure out how to get away with it. This is a classic example of what the famous historian, James Scott, called a “weapon of the weak.” You cannot overthrow the system, but you can find innovative ways to undermine structures of power and carve out a little space for yourself.





Read more
Stanford Medicine. Global COVID-19 Prevention, 2020.

*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

US Customs and Border Protection. “Temporary Restriction of Travelers Crossing US-Canada and Mexico Land Borders for Non-Essential Purposes,” March 21, 2020.
Gallo, Carmine. “Marriott’s CEO Demonstrates Truly Authentic Leadership In A Remarkably Emotional Video,” March 21, 2020.
McGirt, Ellen. “Marriott CEO’s Authentic Message to Employees | Fortune,” March 23, 2020.
Wittlake, Eric. “Three Reasons Marketing Is the First Budget Cut — B2B Digital Marketing,” January 29, 2013.
Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Inc. “Letter to President Trump,” March 21, 2020.
Wall, Julia. “Man Lies about His Son Exposing Him to Coronavirus, Causes Panic at Work, SC Cops Say.” The State, March 21, 2020.
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Additional Links

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.