Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver unpacks just how abominably companies treat their pandemic “heroes”

John Oliver
John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

If you’re stuck at home watching TV, you’ve no doubt been lulled into a state of carefully engineered patriotic torpor by the endless corporate commercials touting their worker “heroes,” who don’t have the luxury of binging all of Deep Space Nine in a week. As John Oliver noted in his blistering story for last night’s Last Week Tonight about the workers toiling at great risk during the coronavirus crisis, only a third of American workers are able to do their jobs from the safety of their homes. And that’s not counting the 10% of the workforce that’s been rendered suddenly unemployed in the last three weeks. Oliver was unsurprisingly critical of both companies’ treatment of their “hero” workers, and the Trump administration’s self-congratulatory assessment of its handling of the mounting worker emergency.

Still reporting from within his off-white, audience-free void, Oliver broke down the ways in which corporations and the government are treating the unemployed and the front-line employed. Not to be spoil anyone’s viewing experience, but the conclusions are “badly” and “holy shit, so, so badly.” Oliver lacerates the corporate and government sectors with his signature surgical aplomb, but even the bullet points are enough to make you want to pick up those bullets and kick off the revolution. There’s Trump crowing incoherently about how the Paycheck Protection Program (designed to provide no-payback loans to companies if they continue to pay workers during the pandemic), while Oliver shows how the program was so ineptly rolled out that bankers didn’t receive guidelines until the day it was launched. Or how decades of neglect and deliberate underfunding from the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” crowd has left states’ unemployment services so overwhelmed and inefficient that the newly unemployed are essentially eating those boots for food.


And then there are corporations like Amazon, whose sonorous, folksy ad extolling their worker-heroes Oliver shows to be the cynical PR bullshit it is. Amazon warehouse workers’ grievances have revealed a lack of protective equipment, social distancing safeguards, and time to even wash their fucking hands. The company’s initial paid sick leave policy was itself a sick joke for New York workers whose life-saving benefits depended upon receiving a positive Covid-19 test. (Go on and try to obtain a quick coronavirus test in New York at this point. We’ll wait.) Sure, Oliver did quibble with one angry worker’s complaint that shipping dildos isn’t an essential task, but he did concede the man’s angry point. Then there are the leaked memos plotting to fire one worker hero who was canned for organizing a walkout, because the company wanted to make an example of any rabble-rousers, especially one who, according to minutes of a meeting attended by Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, wasn’t perceived as “smart or articulate.” (Yes, the worker is Black, in case you had any doubts.) As Oliver said, “Holy shit! That is so racist, I can’t even point out how smart and articulate [Chris] Smalls is without also sounding racist.”

Oliver was adamant that wishing things would go back to the way things were is both impossible and naive. The host noted that even necessary stopgap measures being incompetently implemented by a criminally unprepared Trump administration are just Band-Aids. “When this is over this country is going to need more than Band-Aids, it’s gonna need fucking surgery,” he said. Pointing to the shocking disparity with which Black and Latino populations are dying, the “petri dish” of mass incarceration, the lack of workers’ rights, and the systemic clusterfuck of America’s homeless and unemployment situations, Oliver said “it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic” to bring the nation’s woeful inequalities into the spotlight. That said, and in response to conservatives whining that Democrats are going to use the pandemic to actually bring about some systemic changes, Oliver concluded that the GOP boogeyman of “expanding the welfare state” is exactly what the Trump administration is doing right now—they’re just doing it too late, and murderously poorly.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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