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One City’s Pioneering Project to Push Police Funding Into Housing the Homeless

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Homelessness in the U.S., which was already on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020, exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic. Austin, Texas, is no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin’s population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number “a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for].”

In an effort to do so, the city of Austin has been purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. In a February 4 meeting, the Austin City Council approved the purchase of a fourth hotel—which will provide 150 new homes to the homeless population in the city. Casar says the city plans to move forward on purchasing a fifth and a sixth hotel in the future.

“We have found sufficient resources in the city budget to acquire more hotels because we really believe that it’s a strategy for significantly reducing homelessness in the city,” he says.

In addition to providing long-term and transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness, the hotels purchased by the city will also provide supportive services, including mental health services, trauma services and job services.

“We are working with trusted community groups and nonprofit organizations to provide services at the hotels because we know that there are lots of folks who have experienced real trauma while living on the street and who need support so that their homelessness can permanently end,” Casar says. “And then there are lots of other folks who just need a connection to a job and a stable address for a while so that they can get back on their feet.”

According to Tara Pohlmeyer, communications director for Council Member Casar, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have submitted letters of interest in operating the hotels and providing services, and the Homeless Services Division (HSD) anticipates negotiating a contract with a service provider/operator for each hotel in April.

He says while shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they’re just temporarily addressing the issue. The plan for the converted hotels is for them to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.

“That’s the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow,” Casar says.

To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocate dollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels will come from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council’s efforts to reimagine public safety.

“We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement],” he says. “There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did.”

Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer’s BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin’s greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.

“The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels,” he says. “No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we’ve, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn’t reduce homelessness.”

Between the four hotels the city has purchased, there are about 300 rooms, some of which might be able to house a couple of people, and many of them just a single person. The plan is for the city to continue to purchase additional hotels and expand the programs offered, Casar says.

“We have to pull hundreds of people off the streets this year,” Casar says. “I think that would make a really significant difference.”

The extreme winter weather experienced in Texas through February and March makes the need to provide safe shelter and supportive services for people living on the streets all the more urgent.

“In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets, period. That became even more clear as we saw folks still sleeping out under bridges when we knew that zero-degree temperatures were coming—and sometimes there were hotels or lit-up buildings right across the streets where they could have safely stayed,” Casar says. “It’s clearly already so dangerous to live outdoors and without a home, and these extreme weather events make it even more clear why we can and should reorganize our resources and our priorities to make sure that everybody has a place to lay their head at night that is safe.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


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Rebuilding U.S. Manufacturing Is the Only Path to an Economic Renaissance

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Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation’s prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the “brains” of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it will also require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That’s why it’s crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but also to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so that an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

“It’s that ripple effect,” said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. “If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can’t get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.”

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturers of other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come when the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

Although the decreased aluminum shipments haven’t resulted in layoffs at Davenport, the automotive supply-chain meltdown couldn’t have come at a worse time. When the pandemic curbed air travel last year, airplane manufacturers cut back on the aluminum they get from Arconic.

“Automotive is what kept us going,” Greve said.

America was once a leader in computer chip manufacturing. But as with many other industries in recent decades, the U.S. frittered away the upper hand while other countries boosted production.

The nation’s share of chip manufacturing capacity fell from 37 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. And although demand for chips continues to grow, the U.S. stands to gain only a fraction of the additional capacity currently in the pipeline.

That leaves the country overly reliant on foreign suppliers who can encounter their own production shortfalls, as happened during the pandemic, or who can cut off shipments for political or economic reasons at any time.

“If you’re going to war with somebody, they’re not going to sell you anything,” Greve said, noting dependence on overseas supplies threatens the nation’s ability not only to make cars and other consumer goods but also to obtain the chips needed for defense and intelligence purposes.

Although the current crisis centers on semiconductors, neglect of the nation’s manufacturing base decimated America’s capacity to produce parts and components for many other industries.

“It affects everybody,” Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, said of hollowed-out supply chains that threaten jobs and access to goods. Because of the semiconductor shortage, automakers now take less of the galvanized steel she and her coworkers make at Cleveland-Cliffs’ New Carlisle, Indiana, Works.

Shortages of medical and safety equipment during the pandemic revealed how much manufacturing power the nation let slip away.

But it wasn’t only the finished products, like face masks, America found itself ill-equipped to produce. Makers of hand sanitizer and cleaning products struggled to obtain adequate supplies of the hand pumps and spray triggers made overseas.

“How much time and money are being lost waiting on overseas companies to get products and supplies to the U.S.?” Urban asked.

President Joe Biden took the first step toward rebuilding manufacturing power with an executive order in February requiring immediate reviews of supply chains for the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, electric-battery and rare earth minerals industries as well as longer-term reviews of other sectors.

But after identifying weaknesses, America needs to implement a strategy for restoring supply lines and ensuring long-term resiliency.

That will include direct investment in U.S. manufacturing facilities, such as the $37 billion Biden proposed to ramp up chip production.

It involves strategically using tax incentives to encourage employers to expand operations and invest in new technology. And it means building strong markets for U.S. products, partly through policies that encourage federal contractors and other companies to buy domestic goods.

Besides cutting shifts, Greve noted, automakers have been trying to weather the semiconductor shortage by allocating chips to their most popular models or leaving vehicles partially completed until chips arrive.

GM even eliminated an important feature, an advanced fuel management system, in some models just to save chips and get vehicles to market.

“We shouldn’t have that happen in this country,” Greve said. “If we don’t make the supplies here, then we have no control.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Economy Gains 379,000 Jobs in February; Unemployment Down to 6.2%

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The U.S. economy gained 379,000 jobs in February, and the unemployment rate fell to 6.2%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In response to the February job numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs tweeted:

Last month’s biggest job gains were in leisure and hospitality (+355,000), health care and social assistance (+46,000), retail trade (+41,000) and manufacturing (+21,000). The biggest losses were in construction (-61,000), local government education (-37,000), state government education (-32,000) and mining (-8,000). Employment changed little in other major industries, including wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, information, financial activities and other services.

In February, the unemployment rate increased for Black Americans (9.9%). The unemployment rates for teenagers (13.9%) and Asians (5.1%) declined. The rates for Hispanics (8.5%), adult men (6.0%), adult women (5.9%) and White Americans (5.6%) showed little or no change.

The number of long-term unemployed workers (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) barely changed in February and accounted for 41.5% of the total unemployed.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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A Minimum Wage? A Fake Debate

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Capitalism’s “conservative” defenders yet again oppose raising the minimum wage. They fought raising it in the past much as they tried to prevent the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) that first mandated a U.S. minimum wage. The major argument opponents have used is this: setting or raising a minimum wage threatens small employers. They may collapse or else fire employees; either way, jobs are lost. What is conveniently assumed here is a necessary contradiction between minimum wages and small business jobs. That assumption enables opponents to claim that not setting a legal minimum wage, like not raising it, saves jobs. The system thus presents very poorly paid workers with this choice: low wages or no wages.

“Liberals” in the United States have mostly accepted the assumption of that contradiction, the necessity of that final choice. However, they try to demonstrate that the social gains from a higher minimum wage would exceed the social losses from the reduced employment they admit. Their idea, in effect, is that a higher minimum wage would increase demand for goods and services. Any workers fired because of the minimum wage would be rehired elsewhere to meet the rising demand. Countless empirical studies by conservatives and liberals yield, as usual, correspondingly conflicting conclusions.

In the actual history of U.S. capitalism, the minimum wage has been undercut from the outset. In real terms (what the minimum wage can actually buy), its long-term decline began from a peak in 1968. It was last raised in 2009 (to $7.25 per hour) despite a rising consumer price index every year since then. U.S. business interests plus the “conservative” politicians, media, and academics they support have inundated the public with the idea that raising the minimum wage will hurt poorly paid workers (by losing mostly small business jobs) more than help them. This debate over the minimum wage, intensified whenever proposals to raise it gain public attention, has been “won” chiefly by the conservative/business side.

Despite its political effectiveness for conservatives and big business till now, their argument—like the entire debate—is flawed logically. Its underlying, shared assumption is unnecessary and inaccurate. It serves chiefly to undercut the level, purpose, and social effects of the minimum wage in the United States.

Paying a decent living wage to workers by raising the minimum wage need not threaten the viability of small businesses. The latter need not collapse nor fire workers when minimum wages are raised. Indeed, raising the minimum wage can and should be one basis for a mutually beneficial alliance between wage workers and small businesses.

Few dare quarrel with the notion that in the U.S. today, paying the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is an outrage against decency. It is among the very lowest minimum wages of industrialized economies: quite the achievement for one of the “richest countries in the world.” So the defense of such an outrage has always begun by focusing attention elsewhere. We are asked to sympathize with the small businesses whose profits and thus viability will be undone if they are required to pay a raised minimum wage. We are asked likewise to sympathize with the plight of minimum wage workers who will become jobless when their employer cannot pay a raised minimum wage. Thus the conclusion beloved by opponents of raising the minimum wage: it lies in the interest of low-paid workers and small businesses to join the opposition to raising the minimum wage.

So many flaws attend such logic that it is not easy to decide where to begin its demolition. We might note that it clearly implies that were we to drop the minimum wage even further, below $7.25 per hour, we might achieve lower unemployment rates. But that is so gross an idea that right-wingers rarely go there. They don’t dare.

There is a parallel example we can draw from the history of wage workers when they included children as young as five years old. The parallel logic then held that allowing child labor (with the oppression and abuses it entailed) was doing poor families a favor. Were child labor to be outlawed, capitalism’s defenders then insisted, two tragedies would necessarily follow. First, poor families would suffer an income loss because they could no longer sell their children’s labor power to capitalist employers for a wage. Second, businesses whose profits depended at least partly on low-wage child labor would collapse and render adults jobless too.

It is important to note that after sustained political agitation, child labor was in fact outlawed. The logic of its defenders was rejected and rarely resurfaced afterward even in right-wing and “conservative” literature. Former capitalist employers of children found other means (paying adults more, improving productivity, economizing on other inputs, and so on) to profit and grow. As we know, U.S. capitalism over the last century prospered without child labor. And where U.S. capitalists relocated abroad to employ children, opposition there has replicated what happened in the United States, albeit slowly. What happened to child labor can and likely will happen as well to abysmally low minimum wages.

How then might a civilized society raise its minimum wage to provide a decent livelihood to workers and protect its small businesses? The solution is straightforward. Offset the extra labor costs for small businesses from a higher minimum wage by providing them with some combination of the following: a new and significant share of government orders, tax breaks, and government subsidies. Such supports now overwhelmingly favor big business and thereby facilitate its many efforts to destroy and replace small businesses. Those supports should be reapportioned with special consideration/targeting for small businesses. To be eligible, small businesses would need to show how raising the minimum wage increased their total wage bill. In this way, society can concretely support small business and a decent minimum wage as twin, shared social values.

In effect, this proposal changes the terrain of the minimum wage debate. It brings into stark relief that raising the minimum wage leaves open the question of which part of the employer class will bear the burden of compensating for that in the short run. An effective political coalition of low-wage workers and small businesses could require big business to pay by losing some of its government business, paying higher taxes, or obtaining lower subsidies—all to compensate small businesses for a raised minimum wage. For decades, an alternative political coalition—of big and small business—blocked or delayed minimum wage increases. Nothing requires this latter coalition to always or, indeed, ever prevail over a competing coalition of labor and small business that seeks a higher minimum wage for one plus greater state supports for the other. Likewise, nothing warrants continuing the current debate over raising the minimum wage as if only small business would always have to absorb its possible costs.

The debate over the minimum wage has been lopsided for a very long time. Uncritical media coverage of the debate has allowed big business to evade its proper share of paying to sustain a viable small business sector. Meanwhile, workers and small businesses pay taxes that favor big business. Most Americans want a thriving small business sector. Most also increasingly criticize big business: “antitrust” remains part of government regulation as well as a part of popular ideologies. We can and should correct the old debate now to enable a different political coalition to shape minimum wages in a different way from the past.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or ItselfUnderstanding Marxism, and Understanding Socialism.


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Latinas are getting slammed in the COVID-19 economy, this week in the war on workers

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Latina Equal Pay Day was this week, and if it’s not bad enough that it took this long for Latinas to be paid as much as white men made in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic is dumping additional bad news on them. Women are dropping out of the workforce in large numbers, but Latinas are dropping out in larger numbers than white or Black women—nearly three times and more than four times the rate, respectively.

Then there are Latina domestic workers, who have been crushed by the COVID-19 economy, losing work and in many cases not being eligible for government assistance.

The pandemic is hitting hardest where people were already struggling—with higher infection and death rates among Latino and Black people, and with the economic impact also falling disproportionately on people who are already discriminated against and underpaid and unprotected.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos Labor on October 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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How Were 46 Million People Trapped by Student Debt? The History of an Unfulfilled Promise

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The democratic principle of tuition-free education in our country pre-dates the founding of the United States. The first public primary education was offered in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, and its legislature created Harvard College the following year to make education available to all qualified students. Even before the Constitution was ratified, the Confederation Congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785, which required newly established townships in territories ceded by the British to devote a section of land for a public school. It also passed the Northwest Ordinances, which set out the guidelines for how the territories could become states. Among those guidelines was a requirement to establish public universities and a stipulation that “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” After the nation declared independence, Thomas Jefferson argued for a formal education system funded through government taxation.

Jefferson’s vision took form over the course of more than a century, as state and local governments began creating primary schools and then high schools. The federal government became involved in higher education in the 19th century with the creation of land grant colleges and other institutions, used primarily to teach agriculture and education after the Civil War. These institutions created opportunities for people who had long been locked out of the learning process, including formerly enslaved African Americans and impoverished people of all races.

State universities and colleges rapidly expanded as well. By the middle of the 20th century, low-cost or tuition-free education was available in many American states. After the Second World War, the federal government once again turned to education to promote opportunities for its citizens and economic growth for all. The G.I. Bill paid educational expenses for 8 million people, without regard to individual wealth, which helped create a robust middle class and contributed to the vibrant growth economy of the 1950s and 1960s. While those opportunities were still denied to many people as the result of racism, efforts were underway to improve educational access for people of color.

The Reagan era ushered in a belief that government programs, including education, stood in the way of people’s dreams and should be severely cut back. Public goods came to be seen as investments, ones that were purely economic in nature. For these reasons, among others, a nation that had expanded publicly funded education for centuries decided to reverse course. Instead of funding higher education on the principle that it benefits us all, the country began shifting the cost to individual students.

In the 1950s, as part of the National Defense Education Act, student loans were created as an experiment in social engineering. Concerned about competition with the Soviet Union, policymakers wanted to increase students’ capabilities in math and sciences. To do that, the country needed more teachers. So, lawmakers offered loans to college students, with the opportunity to have half the loan canceled after 10 years if they became teachers.

The experiment failed. Researchers have not been able to prove that the student loan program led more people to become teachers, despite multiple attempts to do so. The experiment was also cruel. Over the years, the student loan program was expanded, with the claim that a student’s personal investment in their education was an “investment” that would pay off in higher wages. Banks and other private lenders were brought into the process and given considerable incentives and subsidies to issue student loans, without considering the burden being imposed on the student. This financial opportunity was given to banking interests that were already wealthy, with little thought of the resulting damage to an economically sustainable future.

Proponents of financializing the cost of higher education argued that it was cheaper to lend money to students than it was for federal and state governments to provide grants for their education, even after paying subsidies to the private sector for their loans. An entire industry grew up around this process. State and nonprofit guaranty agencies were created to insure the loans. These agencies got paid, no matter what: when loans were issued, when loans became delinquent, when borrowers defaulted, and when they collected on defaulted loans.

In response, most states created guaranty agencies so they could make money from people who needed to borrow to pay for ever-increasing tuitions and fees. Now, states had an extra incentive to cut funding for public higher education. Not only would they save on expenditures, but they could increase the need for students to borrow, which increased their revenue. In many cases, these guaranty agencies don’t handle the loans themselves. They pass the work on to private debt collectors who take collection fees and are aggressive in their handling of cases.

The system took on a life of its own. By the mid-1990s, student loans had surpassed grants in funding students’ higher education. But a system built on debt financing only works if borrowers pay back their loans. That led Congress to make the system even crueler with the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984, which exempted student loans from bankruptcy proceedings and subjected borrowers to draconian collection tools. These tools included wage garnishment without a court order and the seizure of Social Security checks and tax refunds. The Clinton and Obama administrations attempted to lessen the burden slightly by allowing the federal government to lend directly to students while introducing income-based repayment options, but the system’s fundamental cruelty remains unchanged today.

It is time to recognize that the cruel experiment in financing higher education through student loans has failed. It has captured 46 million people and their families in a student loan trap, including people who received vocational training, and has weakened the financial strength of higher education. Inescapable debt is a major driver of social collapse. It has made the racial wealth gap worse and weakened the entire economy, as debt holders are prevented from buying homes or consumer goods, starting families, or opening new businesses. It’s time to restore funds for higher education and cancel student debt for the victims of this failed experiment.

Learn more at Freedom to Prosper.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute on September 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors:

Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder of Freedom to Prosper.

Steven L. Swig is a senior fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder of Freedom to Prosper.

David A. Bergeron is a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. Bergeron previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Richard “RJ” Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.


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‘A tale of 2 recessions’: As rich Americans get richer, the bottom half struggles

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The path toward economic recovery in the U.S. has become sharply divided, with wealthier Americans earning and saving at record levels while the poorest struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table.

The result is a splintered economic picture characterized by high highs — the stock market has hit record levels — and incongruous low lows: Nearly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, and the jobless rate stands at 8.4 percent. And that dichotomy, economists fear, could obscure the need for an additional economic stimulus that most say is sorely needed.

The trend is on track to exacerbate dramatic wealth and income gaps in the U.S., where divides are already wider than any other nation in the G-7, a group of major developed countries. Spiraling inequality can also contribute to political and financial instability, fuel social unrest and extend any economic recession.

The growing divide could also have damaging implications for President Donald Trump’s reelection bid. Economic downturns historically have been harmful if not fatal for incumbent presidents, and Trump’s base of working-class, blue-collar voters in the Midwest are among the demographics hurting the most. The White House has worked to highlight a rapid economic recovery as a primary reason to reelect the president, but his support on the issue is slipping: Nearly 3 in 5 people say the economy is on the wrong track, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found.

Democrats are now seizing on what they see as an opportunity to hit the president on what had been one of his strongest reelection arguments.

“The economic inequities that began before the downturn have only worsened under this failed presidency,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Friday. “No one thought they’d lose their job for good or see small businesses shut down en masse. But that kind of recovery requires leadership — leadership we didn’t have, and still don’t have.”

Recent economic data and surveys have laid bare the growing divide. Americans saved a stunning $3.2 trillion in July, the same month that more than 1 in 7 households with children told the U.S. Census Bureau they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food. More than a quarter of adults surveyed have reported paying down debt faster than usual, according to a new AP-NORC poll, while the same proportion said they have been unable to make rent or mortgage payments or pay a bill.

A historic House vote on marijuana legalization will take place later this month. We break down why Democrats are voting on the bill despite the fact that it’ll be dead upon arrival in the Senate.

And while the employment rate for high-wage workers has almost entirely recovered — by mid-July it was down just 1 percent from January — it remains down 15.4 percent for low-wage workers, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights economic tracker.

“What that’s created is this tale of two recessions,” said Beth Akers, a labor economist with the Manhattan Institute who worked on the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. “There are so obviously complete communities that have been almost entirely unscathed by Covid, while others are entirely devastated.”

Trump and his allies have seized on the strength of the stock market and positive growth in areas like manufacturing and retail sales as evidence of what they have been calling a “V-shaped recovery”: a sharp drop-off followed by rapid growth.

But economists say that argument fails to see the larger picture, one where roughly a million laid-off workers are filing for unemployment benefits each week, millions more have seen their pay and hours cut, and permanent job losses are rising. The economy gained 1.4 million jobs in August, the Labor Department reported Friday, but the pace of job growth has slowed at a time when less than half of the jobs lost earlier this year have been recovered.

Some economists have begun to refer to the recovery as “K-shaped,” because while some households and communities have mostly recovered, others are continuing to struggle — or even seeing their situation deteriorate further.

“If you just look at the top of the K, it’s a V — but you can’t just look at what’s above water,” said Claudia Sahm, director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “There could be a whole iceberg underneath it that you’re going to plow into.”

The burden is falling heavily on the poorest Americans, who are more likely to be out of work and less likely to have savings to lean on to weather the crisis. While recessions are always hardest on the poor, the coronavirus downturn has amplified those effects because shutdowns and widespread closures have wiped out low-wage jobs in industries like leisure and hospitality.

Highly touted gains in the stock market, meanwhile, help only the wealthiest 10 percent or so of households, as most others own little or no stock.

The disconnect between the stock market and the broader economy has been stark. On the same day in late August that MGM Resorts announced it would be laying off a quarter of its workforce, throwing some 18,000 workers into unemployment, its stock price jumped more than 6 percent, reaching its highest closing price since the start of March.

“The haves and the have-nots, there’s always been a distinction,” Sahm said. But now, she added, “we are widening this in a way I don’t think people have really wrapped their head around.”

A store going out of business
A customer leaves a retail store, which is going out of business, during the coronavirus pandemic. | Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

Without further stimulus, the situation appears poised to get worse. Economic growth until now had been led by increasing levels of consumer spending, buoyed by stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits that gave many people, including jobless workers, more money to spend.

Low-income consumers have led the way, and they spent slightly more in August than they did in January, according to the Opportunity Insights tracker — even as middle- and high-income consumers are still spending less.

But those low-income consumers were also the most dependent on the extra $600 per week in boosted unemployment benefits, which expired in July. Since that lapsed — and since Congress appears unlikely to extend it any time soon, if at all — “we’re likely to see other macroeconomic numbers really fall off a cliff in the coming weeks,” Akers said.

The expected drop in spending, paired with the expiration of economic relief initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, could also spell trouble for businesses in the coming months. Many economists expect a wave of bankruptcies and business closures in the fall, contributing to further layoffs.

In that sector, too, owners are feeling disparate impacts. More than 1 in 5 small business owners reported that sales are still 50 percent or less than where they were before the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business, and the same proportion say they will need to close their doors if current economic conditions do not improve within six months.

At the same time, however, half said they are nearly back to where they were before, and approximately 1 in 7 owners say they are doing better now than they were before the pandemic, the survey showed.

Those diverging narratives could be understating the need for further stimulus by smoothing over some of the deeper weaknesses in the labor market and the economy, experts say.

“This is a case where the averages tell a different story than the underlying data itself,” said Peter Atwater, an adjunct economics professor at William & Mary.

While Republicans appear to be embracing the idea of further “targeted” aid, they are also touting what Trump has called a “rocket-ship” economic recovery and emphasizing record-breaking growth while downplaying the record-breaking losses that preceded it.

“There’s no question the recovery has beat expectations,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, this week on a press call with reporters.

Talks between the White House and Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have been stalled for weeks. The Senate is set to return from its summer recess next week with no clear path forward on a relief package.

“People are in these bubbles,” Atwater said. “And if people aren’t leaving their homes, are not really getting out, it’s unlikely that they’re seeing the magnitude of the downside of this K-shaped recovery.”

This article originally appeared at Politico on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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Economy Gains 1.8 Million Jobs in June; Unemployment Declines to 10.2%

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The U.S. economy gained 1.8 million jobs in July, and the unemployment rate declined to 10.2%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The improvements reflect the continued resumption of economic activity that previously was curtailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month’s biggest job gains were in leisure and hospitality (+592,000), government (301,000), retail trade (258,000), professional and business services (170,000), other services (149,000), health care (126,000), social assistance (66,000), transportation and warehousing (38,000), manufacturing (26,000), financial activities (21,000) and construction (20,000). Mining lost 7,000 jobs in July.

In July, the unemployment rates declined for teenagers (19.3%), Black Americans (14.6%), Hispanics (12.9%), Asians (12.0%), adult women (10.5%), adult men (9.4%) and White Americans (9.2%).

The number of long-term unemployed workers (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was little changed in July.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on August 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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A growing side effect of the pandemic: Permanent job loss

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More jobs are disappearing for good, dashing hopes of a rapid economic rebound.

Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs in the coronavirus recession, but for many of them the news is getting even worse: Their positions are going away forever.

Permanent losses have so far made up only a fraction of the jobs that have vanished since states began shutting down their economies in March, with the vast majority of unemployed workers classified as on temporary layoff. But those numbers are steadily increasing — reaching 2.9 million in June — as companies start to move from temporary layoffs to permanent cuts. The number is widely expected to rise further when the Labor Department reports July data on Friday.

Workers themselves are growing increasingly pessimistic as the permanent losses spread beyond the service industry to occupations like paralegals and financial analysts who weren’t initially affected by the shutdowns. Nearly half of American families whose households have seen a layoff now believe that job is probably or definitely not coming back, an AP-NORC poll found late last month. That marks a steep drop from the April survey, which showed nearly four in five respondents expecting their job loss to be temporary.

The rise in permanent job loss is the latest signal that the economic damage from the coronavirus is likely to be long-lasting, and that the Trump administration’s dream of a quick, V-shaped recovery is at odds with what workers are seeing across the country. That could create the need for even more government spending and long-term solutions beyond the temporary fixes that Congress has been debating.

“This recession has been really confused, because what we had was really a suppression where we told everybody to stay home — and that wasn’t really job loss,” said Betsey Stevenson, a former chief economist at the Labor Department and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “The real question is, when you end the suppression, how many jobs are left? And boy, it sure looks like we lost a whole lot of jobs.”

Permanent layoffs have already begun spreading beyond industries directly affected by the pandemic. Nick Bunker, the director of economic research with the Indeed Hiring Lab, found that while permanent losses were concentrated in April in service-sector occupations that have been the hardest hit — waiters and retail salespersons, for example — they had spread by June throughout the labor market.

The trend appears poised to get worse. The number of Americans applying for unemployment aid has risen in recent weeks after months of steady decline, as the coronavirus surges across much of the country and a majority of states have either paused or reversed reopening plans. Another 1.2 million workers filed a new unemployment claim last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday, marking the 20th consecutive week that applications have risen above 1 million. More than 32 million people are receiving either state or federal unemployment benefits, according to the most recent data.

Layoffs taking place now are more likely to be permanent rather than a temporary furlough. A Goldman Sachs analysis from July 31 found that 83 percent of job losses since February had been deemed temporary. But of all new layoffs in July in California, which it used as an example, only 35 percent were temporary.

“What’s happening now is more companies that thought they could survive are giving up,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford. “The most painful time to lose your job may well be coming up.”

The permanent losses hold greater weight than temporary layoffs, economists say, because they are far more likely to lead to long-term unemployment that would prolong any economic recovery. While a furloughed worker is likely to get his or her job back as soon as consumer behavior returns to normal, a permanently laid-off worker has to wait for an employer to create a new job, then apply and get matched with the right one.

“That’s what recessions are made of — that’s why they are so costly. That’s why they take so long to clean up,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, a platform that connects businesses with freelancers.

Workers who remain unemployed over the long term end up increasingly less likely to return to the labor market for a number of reasons: Their skills may erode; they may lose motivation or employers may discriminate against them, Bloom said. Even after returning to the labor market, they could see effects like lower pay that linger throughout their careers.

“The reason that’s important from a macro perspective is, if you have this army of long-term unemployed, it becomes almost impossible to have a rapid rebound,” said Bloom, who co-authored a study in May that found that 42 percent of recent layoffs were likely to become permanent.

Economists argue the growing trend toward permanent job losses highlights a need for further federal spending to support laid-off workers, to keep consumer spending close to normal levels and to help small- and medium-size firms in particular weather the shutdowns.

Without more aid, business closures are likely only to increase, in turn keeping unemployment high. A recent Goldman Sachs survey found that 84 percent of business owners who had received loans under the Paycheck Protection Program said they would exhaust the funding by this week. And only one in six reported being “very confident” they would be able to maintain their payroll without further aid.

As more businesses close, it also becomes harder to restart the economy once consumer demand does start to return because there are fewer places for people to spend their money.

Even when consumers want to go out to eat or travel again, “That’s going to take a long time to turn into job benefits if you’ve had massive amounts of small business closures there,” Ozimek said.

Regardless of whether the July data shows the headline unemployment rate rising or falling for the month, the share of permanently unemployed workers is likely to continue to rise, complicating the administration’s touting of what President Donald Trump has previously called a “rocket-ship” economic recovery. And it underscores that even if states begin to reopen their doors in the near future, any return to normal for the labor market is likely years away.

“So are we moving in the right direction? I think not,” said Stevenson, now a professor at the University of Michigan. “I think most people went home from work in March, April or May and thought, ‘Surely they’re going to bring me back to work.’ And what’s happened is fewer of them were brought back than were expecting it.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro.


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‘Tidal wave’: States fear fiscal disaster as Congress slow-walks aid

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The most vulnerable states for seeing their federal aid cut are those that already carried some of the lowest credit ratings.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t be farther apart in their views of how Congress should help states recover from the recession. But their states are among those with the most to lose if the situation gets much worse. 

While every state is feeling the pressure, the most vulnerable ones are those that already carried some of the lowest credit ratings even when the economy was at its best — including Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut and Kentucky. Even New York, which had good credit, has seen its outlook downgraded and will suffer without more federal help.

That’s left some local officials bitter that the federal government has been willing to cut blank checks to businesses regardless of how they are run but views helping state governments as unacceptable “blue state bailouts.” Now, with Congress debating another economic relief package that is unlikely to contain the $500 billion in aid that state officials were hoping for, they’re warning of a looming fiscal disaster, not only for themselves but for the country. 

“If Congress underestimates the economic tidal wave that is coming, even by the smallest of margins, we are all going to be swept away,” said Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs. 

Already, the U.S. Labor Department has reported that some 1.5 million state and local government jobs were lost from February to June, adding to the tens of millions of private sector jobs that have been shed nationwide.

Nowhere is the politics of state aid more complicated than in McConnell’s Kentucky, which Donald Trump won by 30 points in the 2016 presidential election. Next fiscal year, its shortfall could be as high as $1 billion, according to the state’s budget director. 

McConnell has largely stayed out of the debate since setting off a political firestorm — and drawing a blistering rebuke from Cuomo — in April with the suggestion that states might use bankruptcy as a way to emerge from a fiscal crisis – a step that they’re not even allowed to take under federal law.

He walked that back a week later, saying there “probably will be” more funding from Congress.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear — a Democrat — averted deeper cuts or layoffs this budget cycle by instituting hiring freezes and asking for a 1 percent reduction in agency budgets government-wide after coronavirus shutdowns suggested a potentially massive shortfall. But he warned this month that without additional federal support, cuts in the next cycle will need to go deeper than even during the Great Recession. Beshear has urged Congress and the Kentucky delegation, including McConnell, to approve more state funding.

Cuomo said the characterization that only Democratic states needed budget help was “the epitome of hypocrisy.” 

“You now have Republican states that are suffering worse than Democratic states,” he said earlier in July of the new surge of coronavirus outbreaks. “If they want to get this economy back running, you have to fund state and local governments.” 

Kentucky and New York have already begun either reductions in services or payment slowdowns, as have New Jersey and Illinois. 

While Connecticut planned to fill an operating deficit estimated to exceed $1 billion using reserve funds, the state ultimately balanced its budget through a combination of higher-than-expected revenue, tax increases and spending reductions, including by postponing service increases. Still, that the rainy-day fund is expected to quickly dry up in the future with deficits projected to increase.

The finances of those and other state governments have been upside down since the wave of economic shutdowns squeezed tax revenue. A federal delay in the tax filing deadline led many states to follow suit, which also slowed money coming in. At the same time, a historic plunge in crude oil prices further decimated oil-rich states like Alaska and North Dakota that rely heavily on royalties.

While the federal government has been able to print money to blunt the crisis’s economic blow to businesses, workers and the unemployed, states don’t have that option. Already, credit downgrades for some like New Jersey and Illinois mean future borrowing could be more costly, disrupting recovery plans. 

Still, state officials were hoping Congress would provide enough in direct grants to fill budget holes after lawmakers agreed to dole out hundreds of billions in forgivable loans to small businesses in the March stimulus bill. Then in May, House lawmakers agreed on legislation that included $250 billion to backfill state budgets.

Legislation proposed by McConnell’s Republicans on July 27 didn’t offer much room for optimism, however. The legislation calls for $105 billion to go to states for schools — but two-thirds of that is dependent on maintaining certain levels of in-person instruction.

The National Governors Association slammed the lack of additional state aid in the GOP package as “disappointing” in a statement Wednesday from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, the group’s chair, and Cuomo, the vice chair. 

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said in an interview on CNBC Tuesday that it was unlikely Congress would spend much more on local budget issues: “There’s a lot that’s already been done,” he said.

Toomey said money appropriated to states has not even been fully spent and that the Federal Reserve has set up a short-term government credit facility “that has not been drawn significantly but that is available.”

recent report from the Treasury Inspector General backs up Toomey’s argument. The report found that as of June 30, states nationwide had only used an average of about a quarter of the funds from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion economic relief package Congress approved in March. But the National Governors association countered that states have already allocated approximately 74 percent of those funds, on average.

The next agreement will probably fall short because unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and additional small business loans — not state budget deficits — have dominated the debate. 

One ray of hope for the states: Legislation proposed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) in May would give them more discretion to use a $150 billion coronavirus relief fund to cover operating expenses. Congress explicitly prohibited the use of the fund for that purpose when the money was appropriated in March.Language similar to Kennedy’s bill was included in the Finance Committee portion of the Republican Senate package.

But Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a former governor of Florida, criticized the increased spending flexibility in the Republican plan. “What I don’t want to do is bail out the states,” he said to POLITICO.

“We’re not crying wolf out here in the states about some of the drastic measures that would be necessary, and we’ve got proof in past recessions that we will cut,” said John Hicks, Kentucky’s budget director. “Federal fiscal relief is just critical for us to be able to maintain education, health and public safety.”

For its part, New York’s fate is tied financially to New Jersey and Connecticut — both states in worse economic shape — putting the financial health of its massive public transportation network at risk.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which also provides rail service to Connecticut, is burning through $200 million a week.

New York officials said the state has already reduced spending by $4 billion since April through a combination of hiring freezes, new contracts and pay raises, as well as holding back 20 percent of funds to some of the state’s larger cities.

“This means lower spending for police, schools, health care, roads, courts, and support for our most vulnerable neighbors,” Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget, told POLITICO. “The Federal government must act to provide states with the resources we need or the negative impacts of its failure to do so thus far will only deepen.”

New Jersey has cut $1.2 billion in spending and delayed some major payments to schools and pensions. On top of that, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy pared operating costs and grants and has ordered 15 percent reductions across departments. The governor is trying to get clearance to borrow up to $9.9 billion, but Republicans are challenging him in court.

“I would hope this is the moment right now for Congress,” Murphy said at a daily coronavirus press briefing in Trenton. “The next three weeks is do-or-die.” 

“I can’t tell you exactly what happens to our services or programs without that federal cash, but it’s ugly,” he said. 

Financial analysts sense big trouble in Illinois, which has the worst credit rating in the nation. Even before the crisis, the state had to slow down payments because expenditures exceeded revenue, and the coronavirus has stalled them even more, according to the comptroller. The state was hit with a series of negative financial assessments in April, further imperiling future borrowing.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a budget with a $6 billion deficit in June and has warned that layoffs could come without significant extra federal funding.

In a sign of how bad things have gotten, the state is among the few to have accessed short-term credit from a Federal Reserve emergency facility set up in March. Advocates for more state aid have criticized the Fed’s lending option as too expensive, but the terms were actually more favorable for Illinois than the open market because of its poor credit. 

With all the election year pressure, governors fear Congress will opt for the approach taken in the Great Recession: Let states cut their budgets and gripe about a dragged-out economic recovery later. But this time around, it’s clear that governors are laying the groundwork to blame Congress. 

“It doesn’t matter what the political party of the state’s legislature or governor is,” Hicks of Kentucky said. “We’re all in the same boat together.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katherine Landergan covers the state budget, tax policy and labor issues for POLITICO New Jersey.

About the Author: Kellie Mejdrich is a reporter for POLITICO Pro Financial Services.


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