For a decade, Carlos Silva has been gluing, nailing, and re-zippering shoes and boots at Stern Shoe Repair, a usually well-trafficked shop just outside the Metro entrance at Union Station in Washington, D.C. On a typical day, he would arrive at 7 a.m. and stay until 8 p.m., serving the crowds of professionals shuttling by on their way to work. But since the near-shutdown of office work and train travel, he has been closing the shop at 4 p.m. “There is no traffic, my friend. The whole station is dead,” says Silva. “Now it’s only a part-time job.”
In the five months since the coronavirus forced a lockdown of U.S. businesses, economists have focused much attention on the devastation of mom-and-pop businesses, brick-and-mortar shops, bars and restaurants, and massive chains. But they have mostly overlooked a looming threat to a vastly larger and more consequential galaxy of businesses, one worth trillions of dollars a year in GDP and revolving around a single, much underappreciated economic actor — the white-collar office worker.
As companies in cities across the U.S. postpone and even scrap plans to reopen their offices, they have transformed once-teeming city business districts into commercial ghost towns comprised of essentially vacant skyscrapers and upscale complexes. A result has been the paralysis of the rarely remarked-upon business ecosystem centering on white-collar workers, who, when you include the enterprises reliant on them, account for a pre-pandemic labor force approaching 100 million workers.
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These workers shopped at small businesses like Silva’s shoe repair shop: dry cleaners, gyms, food carts, florists, and pharmacies. But they were also among the most vital customers and source of revenue for a slew of larger, less obvious businesses — food delivery companies like Grubhub and…