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Big support for $600 unemployment benefit, but people don’t know who to blame for its lapse

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Americans want the $600 pandemic unemployment benefit renewed by a huge margin, a new poll from HuffPost/YouGov finds. Continuing the benefits gets 54% support with just 29% of people opposed. 

What’s incredibly frustrating in the poll, though, is that 39% of people say congressional Democrats are “at least somewhat responsible” for the expanded unemployment lapsing last Friday, with 41% pointing the finger at congressional Republicans and 29% at least somewhat blaming Donald Trump. That’s despite the fact that the House, which is controlled by Democrats, passed an extension of the $600 months ago, in the HEROES Act. Now, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is pushing hard to continue the $600 while Republicans, both in the Senate and from the White House, push to slash the boosted amount.

Delays on the unemployment renewal are also coming from the fact that, while Republicans are united in wanting to slash it from $600, they’re in disarray on basically everything else, with no consensus among Senate Republicans and the White House typically muddled.

Meanwhile, by the end of August, 5.4 million people will be unable to pay their bills—in addition to those who already can’t—if the benefits aren’t renewed. More than 40% of people receiving unemployment insurance will get less than $800 per month without the additional money from the federal government. Republicans’ refusal to extend the unemployment aid before it ran out to begin with is already hitting people hard with fear of what’s to come.

“Just a few men have to make this decision for how many million people? Ten guys to make a decision over these millions of people’s lives?” Willie Wood, a former banquet server at a New Orleans hotel, told The Washington Post. “This country not taking care of American citizens like they’re supposed to. We didn’t bring this pandemic home. We were at work, and you hit us with a pandemic.”

And Republicans aren’t ready to do the right thing yet, even though it’s also the popular thing. Don’t expect them to do the right thing until the public gives them the blame they deserve.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Working Life Episode 193: The States Go Broke; The Democratic Convention Approaches

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The pandemic has ripped a hole through every state budget in the country to the tune collectively of over $550 billion. That red ink is more than half a trillion dollars in money states won’t have—which translates into millions of people losing their jobs, services being decimated that we all rely on, attacks against people of color who are employed disproportionately in decent-paying government jobs and an economy that won’t recover if aid is not dispatched. Pronto.

And it doesn’t have to be this way, if ideology wasn’t more important for Republicans, and some Democrats, who should be pouring money into states and closing these big deficits—deficits that, remember, were no fault of management by state leaders. The deficits were caused, essentially, by one person, Donald Trump, who dismissed the pandemic, called it a hoax, made fun of people who tried to sound the alarm about the approaching calamity and, thus, caused the economic crisis that is burying states in mountains of red ink. I talk with about the state budget emergency with Michael Leachman, Vice President for State Fiscal Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It’s not a wild guess to say that a very high percentage of the thousands of people who tune into the show are political junkies and probably a big piece of that number consider themselves progressives. So, with the Democratic convention coming up, you’d think I’d do a lot on that, right? Nope: because conventions don’t matter. And, even more so, party platforms don’t matter. And I say all that as a bona fide elected delegate for Bernie Sanders for whom I’ve already cast my virtual ballot for his nomination. My musings about the convention and the progressive movement kick off the show.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on August 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years


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State and local governments have shed 1.5 million jobs in pandemic

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State and local governments have hemorrhaged 1.5 million jobs since February, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports. Nine states lost more than one in 10 state and local government jobs, and in 17 states, more than 10% of jobs in education were lost. But that’s just a down payment on the carnage that’s coming if Senate Republicans continue standing in the way of the needed aid to state and local governments—up to 5.3 million jobs could be lost.

“By not providing federal aid, policymakers would also be sentencing the economy to a prolonged depression, like the one caused by the budget cuts imposed in the aftermath of the Great Recession,” EPI’s Julia Wolfe and Melat Kassa write. “We should heed the lessons learned from the last recovery, namely that public-sector cuts translated into private-sector job losses, and that states that did not take the path of austerity had a much stronger recovery.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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‘Oil on the inequality fire’: How slashing jobless aid could widen the wealth gap

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Congress appears poised to dramatically reduce a federal program that has been providing an extra $600 per week for jobless workers since the spring.

How Congress decides to help the tens of millions of unemployed workers during the pandemic could determine whether the stark gap between America’s rich and poor will continue to widen amid a crisis that has already hit the lowest earners the hardest.

Economic downturns historically have been more damaging for the poor. But in the coronavirus-induced recession, low-income workers are disproportionately dependent on enhanced unemployment benefits in part because shutdowns have wiped out low-wage, in-person job opportunities in industries like hospitality and retail — and have made it dangerous if not impossible to search for other gigs.

More than two-thirds of those earning a salary of less than $25,000 are now out of a job, according to the most recent Census survey data — a number that has risen in recent weeks even as higher-wage sectors have shown potential signs of recovery.

The bottom quarter of wage earners comprise a full third of all recipients receiving jobless benefits, a larger proportion than any other sector, the Congressional Budget Office found. And they are the least likely to have savings to lean on to weather the crisis.

Now Congress appears poised to dramatically reduce a federal program that has been providing an extra $600 per week for jobless workers since the spring, the consequences of which will fall heavily on the lowest-wage employees, economists warn. That could exacerbate already staggering wealth and income divides, which have been growing for decades and which are larger in the U.S. than in any other nation in the G-7, a group of major developed countries. And it could hurt workers of color in particular, who are overrepresented in low-wage jobs.

“There’s a great risk that it will compound the existing inequalities,” said Chuck Collins, a director with the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. “Depending on how both the emergency stimulus response and recovery are designed, it could throw oil on the inequality fire.”

Spiraling inequality has significant ripple effects, economists say, and could contribute to political and financial instability in the country while worsening the economic recession. Moody’s, the credit ratings service, this month flaggedpersistent and growing racial and income inequalities in the U.S. as “potent forces” that are heightening social risk and could adversely affect the country’s economic and institutional strength.

At the same time, many economists argue that it will become more difficult and expensive for society in the long run to not help the most disadvantaged workers today. Hilary Hoynes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who focuses on economic disparities, said children who have a lower quality and quantity of food have lower educational outcomes and less economic well-being throughout adulthood.

“So there’s a way in which not doing enough today is going to cost you more in the future,” she said.

Already, the wealth divide is dramatic: The top 20 percent of the country held more than three-fourths of all household wealth in 2016, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of consumer finance data. The bottom 20 percent held just 2 percent.

The coronavirus crisis is almost certain to worsen that. A May report led by economists from the International Monetary Fund found that recent major outbreaks, including H1N1 and Ebola, worsened income inequality for five years beyond the events. Without “deliberate and strenuous attempts to protect the most vulnerable segments of society,” the coronavirus’ effect on inequality could be greater than previous events, they warned.

Slashing the level of unemployment aid now, when new jobless claims are rising and as data shows roughly one job opening for every four unemployed people, will also hinder a recovery by sparking a drop-off in spending and reducing the amount of money flowing through the economy, analysts say.

As of early July, low-income consumers had cut their spending by just 2 percent from January levels, according to an analysis by Harvard economists, largely because their wages were supported by a combination of unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.

As Congress searches for ways to stimulate the economy, most economists say jobless aid is one of the quickest and most effective ways to get cash directly into the hands of those who need it most. Low-wage workers are likely to spend any aid money immediately. And despite its up-front cost, $1 of spending on unemployment benefits sparked an estimated $1.61 in economic activity during the Great Recession, according to a 2010 report by Princeton University economist Alan Blinder and Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi.

“If we get people unemployment insurance, if we get people the ability to feed their families, our entire economy comes out better on the other side of this,” said Martha Gimbel, a labor economist with the philanthropic group Schmidt Futures.

Meanwhile, the longer unemployment remains elevated, the more cyclical the consequences of joblessness become for the workers currently dependent on their weekly benefit checks. And the Congressional Budget Office forecast earlier this month that without further federal spending, the unemployment rate could remain heightened for years — not recovering to its pre-pandemic level for more than a decade.

“People aren’t going to be able to pay rent. They could face foreclosure. They may rack up huge credit card debts that will stay with them for years. Their credit rating is going to be affected, and that isn’t easy to fix,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s incredibly expensive to be poor in the United States.”

Republican lawmakers, who initially opposed any extension of enhanced jobless benefits and remain divided over the path forward, are now pushing for a lower level of additional aid to remain in place. They say the $600 boost too often provides workers with more than they were making while at work and therefore provides a disincentive to return to their jobs.

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third-ranking Senate Republican, criticized the “bonus” $600 checks on Wednesday as a “heavy wet blanket on our economy” that will “stop people from getting back on the job.”

“You can’t pay people more to not work than to work,” Barrasso said on Fox News.

Democrats, meanwhile, have already voted to extend the extra $600 a week through the end of January.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), the vice chair of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, acknowledged that while that step alone won’t reduce income inequality, “what we want to do is at least not make it any worse.”

“So far we’ve avoided the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ scenario of millions of Americans going hungry — of people losing their homes, people losing their cars, people just desperate,” Beyer said, referring to the John Steinbeck novel about the Great Depression. “That’s what we’re facing if we don’t re-up the unemployment insurance.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on July 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Working Life Episode 190: Big Pharma’s Greed, Lies and Poisoning of America: Wages for All!

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Here is something we can all agree on I think—drug companies are blood-sucking, greedy cheats who cannot be trusted with the health and welfare of tens of millions of people. Am I right? And that’s even more true as we watch the global scramble to be the first company to profit big-time from a vaccine for COVID19. So, I’m going to focus on the Big Pharma corruption today with a friend and investigative reporter, Gerald Posner who is the author of a mind-boggling expose, “Pharma: Greed, Lies And the Poisoning of America”.

Looking for the single most important thing you can do between now and the end of July to slow the pandemic? As I mentioned last week in outlining my proposal for a $6.5 trillion stimulus bill, badger everyone you know, and of course your members of Congress, to get behind Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s bill, and a similar bill in the Senate co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders, to pay people up to $90,000 a year until the unemployment rate declines below 7 percent for three straight months. I talk more about the bill (and you can see last week’s episode for the full plan) which would pay people enough money so they can pay bills like rent and food, and allow them to stay home, either because they are sick or simply to allow a community-wide lockdown for a number of weeks until the so-called curve is dramatically going down.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on July 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.


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Employment won’t recover for a decade, CBO says

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The economic outlook for the next 10 years has “deteriorated significantly” since the CBO issued its last complete set of projections in January.

The nation’s unemployment rate will remain stubbornly higher for the next decade than it was before the pandemic, while economic output will be depressed for years under current tax and spending policy, the Congressional Budget Office said on Thursday.

The economic outlook for the next 10 years has “deteriorated significantly” since the independent budget agency issued its last complete set of projections in January, CBO noted. That illustrates the devastating effects of the pandemic and underscores the reality of a slower economic recovery than the “rocket ship” rebound predicted by President Donald Trump.

CBO assumes that if federal taxes and spending remain in place, the economy will grow rapidly in the third quarter of this year. But compared to earlier estimates, real GDP will be 3.4 percent lower, on average, for the next decade. The annual unemployment rate, which was projected to average 4.2 percent, is now projected to average 6.1 percent during the same period.

The calculations do not take into account any changes that could occur with the passage of an additional emergency relief bill that Congress is expected to take up prior to the August recess.

The four laws enacted by Congress in response to the outbreak and economic downturn will “partially mitigate the deterioration in economic conditions and help spur the recovery,” CBO said.

“Low-income families have borne the brunt of the economic crisis, partly because the hardest-hit industries employ low-wage workers,” the agency said. “African American, Hispanic, and female workers have been hit particularly hard, in part because they make up a disproportionate share of the workforce in certain industries with jobs that involve elevated risks of exposure to the coronavirus.“

While the estimates follow a positive jobs report for June, several states that rushed to restart their economies in recent weeks are experiencing huge spikes in infection rates, prompting some governors to roll back their reopening plans.

CBO cautioned that the numbers “are subject to an unusually high degree of uncertainty, which stems from many sources, including incomplete knowledge about how the pandemic will unfold, how effective monetary and fiscal policy will be, and how global financial markets will respond to the substantial increases in public deficits and debt.“

The agency’s 10-year outlook provides estimates that the Trump administration decided to scrap this summer. On Wednesday, the White House quietly published its mid-session review of federal spending, forgoing the updated economic projections that have usually been included by administrations for the last several decades.

“Any such estimates would be entirely speculative, given the range of uncertainty underlying potential future paths of economic growth,” the review said.

But the lack of data has earned backlash from fiscal hawks.

“In the midst of a national public health and economic crisis, full and transparent budget projections are more important than ever,” said Michael Peterson, CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which advocates for awareness of the nation’s long-term fiscal health.

“The Mid-Session Review traditionally offers critically important insights for lawmakers and the public, taking into account the state of America’s economy and our fiscal condition,” he said. “Unfortunately, this report excludes a lot of this valuable information, which represents a lost opportunity to help guide vital decisions about our nation’s future.”

CBO Director Phillip Swagel has already warned that the economic downturn sparked by the global coronavirus outbreak will be much tougher to fix than the 2008 financial crisis.

“It’s more challenging for policymakers to support the economy given the depth and breadth of this pandemic,” he said last month at a virtual forum hosted by the Peterson Foundation.

And in a recent letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Swagel cautioned that any boost in economic activity will be “tempered” as long as some social distancing continues.

In April, CBO predicted that the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic will explode to nearly $4 trillion this year. Federal debt held by the public will be 101 percent of gross domestic product by the end of the fiscal year.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on July 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Caitlin Emma covers the federal budget and congressional spending bills on Capitol Hill for POLITICO Pro. Prior to that, she spent five years as an education policy reporter for Pro.


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Minimum wage rises some places, but it’s still the COVID-19 economy

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Unemployment remains sky-high (no matter what Donald Trump tries to tell you), and four million workers have had their pay or hours cut due to the pandemic. For people who are still on the job, there’s some good news in some cities and states in the form of minimum wage increases that went into effect on July 1.

In Illinois, the minimum wage went from $9.25 an hour to $10. In Oregon, it went from $11.25 to $12. In Nevada, workers with health insurance will have an $8 minimum wage and workers without health coverage will get $9, up from $8.25. The minimum wage in Portland, Oregon, went from $12.50 to $13.25. Chicago rose from $13 to $14. More than a dozen other cities—most of them in California—and three counties had increases, too. The problem is that many workers, even those who are still employed, aren’t getting the hours they need to get by. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Why temporary layoffs may become permanent

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Forty-two percent, or 11.6 million, of all jobs lost through April 25 due to Covid-19 will become permanent, according to the University of Chicago.

The White House is downplaying the bulk of coronavirus-related layoffs as temporary. But as the worsening recession forces companies to downsize or shut their doors, economists warn that many of these departures will turn permanent.

The unemployment rate for May is expected to hit about 20 percent, coming on top of April’s 14.7 percent. Those statistics — likely underestimates because workers must be “actively looking” for jobs to be counted — would be the highest since the Great Depression.

But President Donald Trump’s advisers have found a different number to seize on: a Federal Reserve estimate, released earlier this month, that 91 percent of people who lost their jobs or were furloughed reported that they expect to return to the same employer eventually. This statistic, the administration officials say, is part of the reason the U.S. should reopen its economy.

“Besides the stock market, there are little glimmers,” Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said last week. “I don’t want to downplay the heartbreak because the numbers are not good for this quarter — bad, bad pandemic contraction — but there are little glimmers. A lot of the unemployed are temporary.”

But economists say shifting demands and the sheer breadth of the business closures mean that many of the lost jobs will never return — and to lean on the statistic as a sign of economic well-being is politically risky.

“That’s a high number, and that’s good,” said the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, of the workers’ optimism about returning to their jobs. “But I think we absolutely have to think of that as an upper-bound on how many will be called back.”

“And what we don’t know is how much lower than that … will it ultimately be. The concern is that it’s going to be a lot lower.”

Forty-two percent, or 11.6 million, of all jobs lost through April 25 due to Covid-19 will become permanent, according to research from the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute. The study places these in three buckets: jobs lost to coronavirus-induced demand shifts, jobs at firms that don’t survive the pandemic and jobs lost due to post-pandemic concerns, such as social distancing.

“I understand that the administration and other folks are optimistic,” the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Paul Winfree, a former Trump aide, said of the temporary layoff numbers. But “I don’t think I can get behind those estimates.”

“We’re going to be dealing with this unemployment problem for quite some time,” Winfree said. “And ultimately, it’s going to plague the economy for months, if not years.”

Businesses in some of the hardest-hit industries have already announced thousands of closures. As of April, about 3 percent of restaurants in the country, once temporarily shuttered, have permanently closed, according to the National Restaurant Association. And manufacturing giants like Caterpillar, Polaris and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. are shutting down their once-furloughed factories for good, The Wall Street Journal reports.

“You probably had a lot of businesses in absolute good faith say ‘we’re going to call you back’ totally thinking they were going to, but will never do it,” Shierholz said. “Many may go out of business. And two, it’s very probable that in many cases [when they do reopen] they won’t need everyone.”

Even if businesses make it through the pandemic, continued social distancing and other altered consumer behavior mean that many of them are unlikely to be able to rehire their temporarily laid-off or furloughed workers, economists say.

“If it’s the case that for the next two, three years, far fewer people are going to go out and eat at restaurants, if cinemas and movie theaters are going to have to have semi-permanent social distancing reducing their capacity, then a lot of these businesses will become nonviable and these jobs will be permanently lost,” said Ryan Bourne, an economist with the libertarian Cato Institute.

By touting the majority of layoffs as impermanent, Bourne said, the White House is creating a dangerous precedent given the large degree of uncertainty.

“There’s a political danger to implying that things will just go back to normal, which is that you create the expectation that you’re willing to do what it takes to ensure that happens,” Bourne said. “If I was somebody in the Trump administration, I would not be wanting to create the expectation that 90 percent of existing work relationships … were highly likely to return because I think there’s still a huge degree of uncertainty as to whether that will happen.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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We need strong policy now to avert a depression, this week in the war on workers

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We know that unemployment is sky-high, but that’s not the end of the story. The Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz sounds a warning that, if lawmakers don’t act, we’re looking at a depression.

“If the federal government provides sufficient aid during this crisis so that people’s income doesn’t drop dramatically (even if they have been unable to work), so that businesses stay afloat (even if they have been totally or significantly shuttered), and so that state and local governments whose tax revenues are plummeting are not forced to make drastic cuts that will hamstring the economy, then those furloughed workers could get back to their prior jobs and the recovery could be rapid because confidence and demand would be relatively high,” she writes. “But if the federal government doesn’t act, then those furloughs will turn into permanent layoffs and the country will face an extended period of high unemployment that will do sweeping and unrelenting damage to the economy—and the people and businesses in it.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman sounds a similar note with an eye to state budgets, writing “Federal aid that policymakers provided in earlier COVID-19 packages isn’t nearly enough. Only about $65 billion is readily available to narrow state budget shortfalls. Treasury Department guidance now says that states may use some of the aid in the CARES Act of March to cover payroll costs for public safety and public health workers, but it’s unclear how much of state shortfalls that might cover; existing aid likely won’t cover much more than $100 billion of state shortfalls, leaving nearly $665 billion unaddressed. States hold $75 billion in their rainy day funds, a historically high amount but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenge they face. And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that still leaves them about $600 billion short.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Essential Workers Fight for Their Lives

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At a time of record unemployment, Cintya Medina feels lucky to have a job at the Barnes & Noble warehouse in Monroe, N.J.—but she does not want a job that puts her in danger.

When Medina and her coworkers learned of several confirmed Covid-19 cases at the warehouse, they organized a protest on April 7 to demand a two-week shutdown and full cleaning.

“If you continue to make workers like me go back to work, you’re not going to stop the spread of the virus because it’s highly contagious,” Medina tells In These Times in Spanish through a translator. She also questioned why the chain bookseller was forcing employees to come in at all: “It doesn’t make sense that we continue to be open because we’re not essential right now.” Businesses deemed essential, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, have special exceptions to operate during pandemic lockdown orders.

Medina is one of millions of workers who are stuck with the impossible choice between protecting their health and getting a paycheck. More than 20 million others cannot work at all, laid off from their jobs and left wrangling with their local unemployment office. Many are simply excluded from other benefits, all while the country hurtles toward a depression.

The workers faring best during the pandemic are those with high wages, access to healthcare, paid sick leave and the ability to work from home. But those benefits are exceedingly rare for much of the workforce, says Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank. The coronavirus crisis has “uncovered the weakness in our social safety net,” she says. More than 40% of workers are employed in low-wage jobs and some 28 million non-elderly adults lack health insurance. Moreover, federal data suggests only about 30% of workers have the ability to work from home—and the rate is even lower for black and Latino workers. 

Workers making poverty wages in precarious jobs were struggling to survive well before the pandemic. Now, besieged by economic devastation and a public health crisis, they are in a fight for their lives. Just as the virus has exposed the vicious inequities ingrained in the country’s economic hierarchy, so is it galvanizing workers to organize for safe workplaces, fair pay, decent medical leave and the right to challenge bosses who put them in harm’s way.

Low Pay, Essential Work

Jake Douglas made $14 an hour as a driver for United Airlines’ catering service at Denver International Airport, but he took a voluntary unpaid layoff in late March. His partner is immunocompromised, and Douglas worried about potentially getting infected. Ironically, his decision to try to protect his health could cost him his healthcare. Though Douglas remains on his employer-sponsored health plan, he has lost his income, is still waiting to get benefits from the state’s overwhelmed unemployment-claim system, and fears he might no longer be able to afford his health insurance payments. Meanwhile, he suffers from a longstanding shoulder injury that hampers his employment options.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to return to work without physical therapy at a minimum, but probably surgery,” he says. “And so I’m just really nervous … I do not know what I’m going to be able to do to survive this thing if it drags on.”

Douglas’ economic precarity is shared by millions of laid-off workers, who are disproportionately women, black or Latino.

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says the economic devastation of the coronavirus will “be tremendously damaging for lower-wage workers, who tend to not have savings and assets to withstand economic shocks like this.”

The CARES Act—the federal stimulus package passed in late March—was intended to cushion the job losses precipitated by the pandemic. Its expansions of unemployment assistance include an extra $600 tacked onto state unemployment benefits, plus an unprecedented extension of assistance to the self-employed, such as Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig workers.

But Shierholz argues unemployment insurance is not an ideal way to deliver relief to dislocated workers. Mass layoffs, she says, would ultimately slow down the recovery, by requiring businesses to rebuild their workforce from scratch as they reopen. “It’s incredibly better for both workers and businesses to furlough but not lay off,” she says. “But we don’t really have a culture of holding onto workers during a downturn and then just bringing them back online after the downturn is over.”

Several European governments have opted to preserve jobs by subsidizing companies to keep workers on their payrolls. By contrast, the U.S. relief package offered an extremely limited pool of supplementary loans for small businesses to avoid laying off staff (which was quickly exhausted, and hastily replenished), while hundreds of billions of dollars were funneled into massive hotel, retail and supermarket corporations—largely free of any concrete mandates to retain workers.

In other words, lawmakers have opted to make unemployment more bearable rather than compel employers to furlough workers and preserve their livelihoods.

Even workers who receive several hundred dollars a week in unemployment benefits could be devastated by the loss of their employer-sponsored healthcare.

The coronavirus “really lays bare the inhumanity of employer-sponsored health insurance,” says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates some 3.5 million laid-off workers lost their employer-sponsored health plans between mid-March and early April—just as their families (who likely shared those health plans) will need care to deal with the growing public health crisis.

None of the federal stimulus acts have expanded healthcare coverage, aside from providing funds for hospitals and testing, although Democratic lawmakers have proposed expansions of Medicaid and of some private insurance coverage.

Givan emphasizes that millions of workers never had insurance in the first place for myriad reasons, whether they were undocumented, or their jobs never offered it, or they couldn’t afford it. Many are still working without healthcare, often in frontline jobs that expose them to health risks every day, as they staff grocery stores, clean hospitals and deliver goods.

“We’re saying, ‘Do this job that’s essential to the functioning of our society … and you will risk being infected with this virus,’ ” Givan says. “And if that happens, you’ll be left with large bills or with no access to care, whether that’s because you’re undocumented, uninsured or under-insured.”

Underpaid Heroes

A worker’s ability to stay healthy amid the pandemic hinges on their ability to take time off without sacrificing their wages. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, seven in 10 low-wage workers did not have a single paid sick day. The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides two weeks of paid leave for full-time employees affected by Covid-19. Additionally, the CARES Act temporarily extends federal family medical leave laws to provide workers with limited wage replacement for the care of a child, for up to 12 weeks.

But again, the protections are patchy. The paid leave and child care provisions exclude private employers with 500 or more employees and allow an exemption for firms with fewer than 50 employees. These carve-outs could effectively exclude up to 106 million private-sector workers, including millions of the poorest.

Josh (a pseudonym to protect him from employer retaliation) is a Walmart pharmacy assistant in Illinois and a self-described “Walmart baby”—the son of Walmart employees. He fears that, while keeping the nation’s largest retailer operating, he and his parents are exposed daily to hazardous conditions. Although workers have some protective equipment, he says, what they really need is adequate paid leave to protect themselves and their families.

In March, Walmart announced a new two-week paid leave policy for employees who test positive for the virus—but it excludes workers who, for example, are immunocompromised or tending to ill family members. Josh, who is part of the worker advocacy group United for Respect, notes that people are reluctant to actually use what paid leave they have in fear of “repercussion from management.”

“For [my parents] to not be treated and protected on a daily basis … just irks me to the highest degree,” Josh says. He suggests workers be compensated with hazard pay, so they can at least have their “essential” role reflected in their paycheck.

“[People say] we’re heroes and everything—but it doesn’t feel like we’re heroes,” Josh adds. “It feels like we don’t have a choice.” With hazard pay, “at least [workers] might get a little bit of solace in knowing that, ‘Hey, I’m working during this. My job’s important.’ Helping people is definitely worth more than $8 an hour.”

Demanding A Just Workplace

Some workers in high-risk jobs are banding together to demand their bosses do more to keep them safe.

Jordan Flowers, a worker at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island, protested alongside coworkers in late March and early April to demand the company close its workplace until it could be fully sanitized, as reports emerged that as many as 25 workers had contracted Covid-19. “We’re in a warehouse of 5,000 people,” Flowers says. “You never know who is sick.”

The walkouts at JFK8 followed similar actions at Chicago and Detroit Amazon facilities, and were part of a national campaign to expand paid leave policies for affected workers. (Amazon provides two weeks of paid leave only for employees diagnosed or quarantined with Covid-19.)

Workers who help secure the nation’s food supply are also demanding respect and fatter paychecks.

Unionized grocery workers with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have successfully pressured several large supermarket chains and food producers to secure hazard pay, extra sanitation provisions and paid leave for hundreds of thousands of members. Workers at non-unionized chains, such as Trader Joe’s, are also campaigning for improved safety protections and hazard pay. (Trader Joe’s has made some reforms, like additional paid leave, but at the same time, sent employees a strident antiunion letter to deter organizing.) Meanwhile, Instacart workers—who provide home grocery delivery services for various outlets—went on strikein late March to demand safety equipment and $5 per order in hazard pay.

Meat-processing workers have mobilized to refuse work at claustrophobic plants where hundreds of Covid-19 cases have surfaced. An estimated 830 workers at the JBS USA meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, called off work en masse, and about 50 Perdue chicken-processing workers walked off the job in late March. After some plants temporarily shuttered following outbreaks, President Trump ordered in late April that they remain open as a “critical industry.”

Some of the lowest-paid food service workers are agitating for better safety protections as well. In early April, McDonald’s workers staged protests and walkouts in Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities to demand hazard pay and adequate safeguards. In San Jose, 26-year-old drive-through worker Irving Garza staged an informal strike with several coworkers to demand hazard pay and safety gear. Customers are constantly hovering within a few feet of his window, most not wearing masks. “I’m breathing the same air that they’re breathing … so I’m putting myself at a big risk,” he says.

Some companies, including Amazon, Instacart, JBS USA, Perdue, McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble, have introduced new safety measures, such as more intensive cleaning, masks and social-distancing rules, and in a few cases, provided additional paid sick leave for Covid-19.

But, fundamentally, workers are standing up for something more: a voice. In terms of physically safeguarding workers’ health, Givan explains, employers can offer protections at their discretion, but “anything that’s given by the good grace of the employer can be taken away just as easily.”

During the McDonald’s protests, the company announced plans to increase safety protections at its restaurants, including distributing masks and hand sanitizer—though it admitted the rollout was still in process at its restaurants, most of which are independently operated franchisees. As of mid-April, protests continued. Garza, who relies on his fast-food job to support his mother and several siblings, returned to work after his manager provided additional safety equipment, but since going on strike, his hours were cut in half.

“McDonald’s should listen to its workers … because they are all at the bottom of the pyramid,” he says. To the bosses, he says, “And we’re not serving you. You are serving us, because we’re the ones that are working. We’re the ones who are making the sales happen, who are working on the line … so just listen to the workers.”

No Papers, No Relief

Many of the workers hardest hit by the pandemic, whether they are laid off or soldiering on in their essential jobs, will receive no support from federal relief legislation—because they are undocumented.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, some 6 million immigrant workers—both with and without legal status—work in “frontline industries,” such as healthcare and manufacturing medicine and soap. Immigrant workers, a large share of them undocumented, hold about a quarter of construction and extraction jobs. Yet undocumented workers are excluded from most federal benefits programs.

So people like Fredy Moreno, an undocumented construction worker in the Twin Cities, won’t get the $1,200 stimulus check other households look forward to. But he has bigger worries, like the more than $13,000 he says he is owed by a previous employer. With the economic downturn compounding his prior employer’s wage theft, Moreno is desperate to get back to work despite the health risks.

“I don’t have the rent,” Moreno says through a Spanish translator. “I don’t have money to buy food for my family. I have a small child. … I don’t have money to go out and buy diapers—if there are even diapers to go buy. It’s been pretty difficult.”

With construction jobs drying up, Moreno laments the exclusion of undocumented workers, who contribute roughly $27 billion in local, state and federal taxes annually, from the federal relief package. “I think that we should be included,” he says, “because we also work, and we also pay taxes … and I think our families also matter.”

While the federal relief package shuts out undocumented workers, several immigrant-focused labor groups, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Make the Road New York and Alianza Agrícola, have launched relief funds for workers or pressed state lawmakers to help undocumented workers access aid. In mid-April, NDLON sent a “protest caravan” to California’s statehouse. A day later, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide $125 million relief fund for immigrant workers, regardless of status.

Viral Resistance

Some labor advocates hope the pandemic, and the worker uprisings it is spurring, could compel policymakers, employers and the public to address critical gaps in the welfare system and to start to give frontline workers the respect and fair compensation their essential labor deserves.

The crisis might ultimately “create a moment in the public dialogue and in the political imagination about the choices that we’re making,” says Wendy ChunHoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work, an advocacy group focused on paid leave policies. “Because we could value childcare and care jobs, and the entire care infrastructure … as [equally] important as the carveouts that we’re giving [to] large corporations right now. It’s a choice that we’re making as a country—we could choose differently.”

Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the pandemic “has exposed fundamental basic contradictions in the way public policy has been formulated to benefit the narrow interest of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, at the expense of the vast majority.” He adds the ongoing economic devastation could spur “public demand to address some of these basic structural issues within our society” to provide “a sustainable standard of living for working people.”

Right now, most workers are focused on protecting their health and feeding their families. But the momentum of grassroots organizing in the face of Covid-19 could eventually inspire more workers to form unions, call for comprehensive family-leave policies and demand employers protect jobs through arrangements like work-sharing, which allows employers to use the unemployment system to reduce work hours while avoiding layoffs.

General Electric workers recently agitated at plants in Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia, not only for health protections at work but for jobs that protect the health of others. As members of the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America, they demanded better sanitary conditions and expanded paid leave, along with the conversion of factories where workers have been laid off—which usually produce industrial parts, such as generators and jet engines—to manufacture respirators for coronavirus patients.

Douglas, the former airline-catering employee, is organizing with other airport and service-industry workers under the banner of the Denver Democratic Socialists of America to pressure the city and state government to cancel rent, mortgage and utility bills for 90 days. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a similar federal bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments, which has been co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), among others.

“All of us feel that if we can’t work, we can’t pay,” Douglas says. As more residents are laid off, then “there’s a tipping point and a crisis coming regardless, and our local elected officials need to do everything they can to support us right now, because the system can’t sustain itself.”

The economy “will never be what it was before,” says Erica Smiley, executive director of the workers’ rights group Jobs with Justice, but says the labor movement has a chance to organize for a more just future. “The question is, will [post-pandemic society] be reorganized to continue to move more resources to those at the top? … Or will it be forever changed in a way that more ordinary people are put into positions to make decisions about our general health and well-being as a society?” Smiley says.

“It will be a fight either way.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a historian based in New York City, a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored podcast.


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