(Part of a series on the impacts of the coronavirus on employment and the workplace. The previous ones are here.)

The phrase “Appointment in Samarra” is usually associated with the 1934 novel of that name by John O’Hara. But the origin is the 1933 play, Sheppy, by Somerset Maugham. Near the end of the play, Maugham recounts the Arabian fable of Death and the Servant. The Servant believes he is rushing to escape death, only to gallop toward it. The speaker is Death:

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.

She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Our California economy, like the national economy, has been in freefall since early March. Within the just past four weeks, more than 3.2 million new Unemployment Insurance claims have been filed, and the job devastation grows each day. Last Friday, the East Bay Economic Development Association released a poll of its member businesses: nearly one third estimated they will permanently close if the shutdown lasts another two months or so. 

What to do? In the next few weeks, the period beyond? Will continuing the economic shutdown, aimed at social health, lead to our own appointment in Samarra?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been a member of several workgroups, comprised of workforce professionals, farmworker advocates and professionals in disability employment. We have been researching and addressing the above questions. 

Across these workgroups, the long term impacts of the recent devastation is top of mind. A concern widely voiced: even with the recent job stabilization efforts of the CARES Act, the longer the shutdown, the more difficult will be the recovery. The strong employment gains made in the past few years, including for groups with greatest barriers such as welfare recipients, long term unemployed and workers with disabilities, may be lost for a long time.  

The California Workforce Association (CWA), the association of California’s 45 Local Workforce Development Boards (LWDBs) is the host of one work group. The LWDBs are the workhorses of the job training and anti-poverty world. They know the unemployed in their areas, and have close ties with local employers. It is worth saying a word about their efforts, to indicate how the workforce system is responding. 

During the shutdown, the LWDBs have been closely tracking the job opportunities—those openings arising in some numbers with the transportation and logistics giants (Amazon, UPS), grocery chains (Walmart, Costco, Safeway), and the local food delivery services (GrubHub, Instacart), as well as those involving one-and-two placements with businesses continuing operations. They have actively sought out the unemployed, and been able to make placements.

In Humboldt County in the North Coast, the LWDB writes: “Our partners have all been working diligently to keep their services open despite being closed to the public. We are updating partner websites daily to include the most up-to-date hiring information in grocery, retail, waste management and food delivery.” The LWDB in Merced in the Central Valley reports, “We are sending out emails to our clients, present and past, with information on finding new employment. Case managers are aware of all immediate job openings and are talking with their participants about these options.” The San Diego LWDB notes it has been hosting daily Rapid Response webinars, “We have our own custom portal on the salesforce platform. These are for jobs we have relationships with employers.” And in Kern County, one of the hardest hit counties with the oil price collapse, the LWDB adds “continued communication with employers helps us to understand any hiring needs.” 

Beyond these efforts, the LWDBs are coordinating deliveries of masks and other personal protective gear, food bank distributions, providing emergency assistance. Further, a CWA workgroup is researching ideas for job creation after the economy reopens. Three long time directors, John Solis in San Joaquin County, Blake Konczal in Fresno, and Jan Vogel in the South Bay of Los Angeles, have been leading a push for forms of public service employment.

Everyone would like to do more—the sense of mission is so high. But until there is a firmer timetable and protocols for re-opening, there is little more than can be done. And each day brings word from LWDB staff of businesses that say they may not be reopening.

Similarly, the Stanford Neurodiversity Project has pulled together a workgroup of providers of employment services for adults with disabilities. The past decade has seen a rise in the employment initiatives for these adults, and placements with the strong economy. Now the fear is that the gains will be wiped out, and that these adults will not fare well in a coming economy of job scarcity. The workgroup is volunteering time to examine how some of the existing financial incentives, such as the Paid Internship Program and Work Experience subsidies, can help get adults with disabilities back into jobs. 

The workgroups are completely nonpolitical and not involved in timing issues. But outside of the workgroups, a number of us from throughout the state have come together to address the timing. We are reaching out to state and local officials, detailing the job devastation, an advocating for a reopening of the economy some time in May, rather than the summer or fall timetable that has been discussed.

The economic shutdown appears to have “flattened the curve”, prevented hospitals from being overwhelmed, and given the health system time to develop testing and increased capacity. The fatality rates in California are below what the models predicted, and there is growing evidence that a significant percentage of the population is contacting the virus and suffering only mild or no illness. Now it’s time to address the job impacts of continued shutdown.

In our advocacy, we have reached out to faculty at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, to understand best practices for reopening, and to make sure we are not missing data that indicate reopening the economy will put Californians at risk. We’re confident we’re not, though we are open to new evidence.

Which brings us to this morning. Last Friday, the state of Georgia began re-opening parts of its economy, and other states, including Colorado, Florida and Montana announced re-openings coming this week. These will be good tests on what can be accomplished. It’s likely that even with these formal re-openings, the economic uptick will be slow until workers and consumers gain confidence. It’s also likely that when allowed to reopen, businesses will be surprisingly innovative in developing new protocols, and in providing options to workers and consumers to maintain public safety. We’ll see.  

Originally published in Forbes