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Essential Protections for Essential Workers

As we sprint to overcome the current public-health and economic crisis, we must also prepare for the marathon of fixing the systemic imbalances that have left workers vulnerable to infection and economic hardship. Only by building an economy that truly works for everyone can we prepare effectively for the inevitable next crisis.

NEW YORK – The COVID-19 crisis has exposed deep vulnerabilities in our economies and societies. Just as those with pre-existing health problems are more likely than their healthy counterparts to face serious complications and even death if they become infected, workers and small businesses are most at risk from the pandemic-induced economic downturn. This disparity is particularly pronounced in the United States.

To be sure, the COVID-19 crisis is threatening the livelihoods of workers everywhere. But in most developed economies, social protections – including guaranteed paid family leave and sickness benefits, affordable health care, robust pension systems, and effective labor unions – are softening the blow.

That is not the case in the US. For example, workers at McDonald’s – for which gross profits exceeded $11 billion last year – lack fair wages, paid sick leave, and the right to unionize. The Fight for $15 movement, which has long advocated for McDonald’s workers, has sought additional protections during the pandemic – including furlough pay during restaurant closures and tighter safety protocols – to no avail.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Germany, unions and fast-food companies worked together through sectoral bargaining to ensure that workers receive 90% of their regular wages during the crisis. Even within the US, companies that have collective-bargaining agreements with their workers are proving far more resilient during the crisis, thanks partly to their more creative responses.

Of course, US workers were struggling long before the pandemic. Last May, the US Federal Reserve reported that four in ten American adults would have a hard time covering an unexpected $400 expense (using cash, savings, or a credit card paid off at the next statement). In November, the Brookings Institution showed that 53 million US workers between the ages of 18 to 64 – 44% of the labor force – qualify as “low-wage.”

It is a travesty that, although the US is home to most of the world’s most valuable companies, millions of Americans are only a few hundred dollars away from falling off a financial cliff of unpaid bills and unmanageable debt. This reflects decades of unchecked corporate greed, which has made basics like housing, prescription drugs, higher education, and training unaffordable for the working and middle classes. It also reflects 30 years of pro-monopoly policies, which have left Main Street with little chance to compete.

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As we sprint to survive the current public-health and economic crisis, we must also prepare for the marathon of fixing these systemic imbalances. Success will require progress on three critical fronts.

First, the US Congress should accelerate plans for a new emergency relief program. Representative Pramila Jayapal has proposed a scheme to deliver cash directly to essential workers and guarantees paychecks to those who must stay home. Closing the loophole that has allowed large employers like McDonald’s to avoid providing paid sick leave is imperative.

This is more a matter of priorities than budget. The Trump administration insisted on using $550 billion to create what is essentially a Wall Street slush fund. Had that money been channeled toward households, each one could have received $3,928.

Any support package must include immigrant workers. If the COVID-19 crisis has shown anything, it is which workers really are “essential.” Among them are the millions of agricultural laborers who ensure the US food supply and the home health workers who care for the elderly and disabled. Rather than allow President Donald Trump’s administration to deny relief to immigrants, US leaders must push to give them a permanent living wage and adequate protections.

The second pillar of an effective strategy to protect workers is action by civic groups, NGOs, corporations, and individuals. The Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations have helped to launch new funds to provide direct relief to workers in the hardest-hit industries, including restaurants, home health care, domestic work, and agriculture. We are also supporting emergency efforts to ensure that small businesses and community non-profits, especially those within communities of color, can access emergency loans.

We call on the private sector to join us, and we hope that corporate shareholders and the general public will support that appeal. Corporations must recognize that the only humane response to the COVID-19 crisis is one that ensures health and safety. This means providing protective equipment, paid sick leave, and higher wages to workers risking their and their families’ health, in order to provide food and other necessities to the millions of people who are sheltering at home. Pandemic profiteering must not be tolerated.

The third and final pillar of a worker-protection strategy is the most fundamental: a new social contract that can underpin the development of a people-centered economy that empowers, rather than exploits, workers. Whether they are building our infrastructure, harvesting our food, or taking care of our loved ones, all workers deserve fair wages that do not leave them languishing in poverty. They also deserve freedom from debt, affordable prescription drugs and health care, and safe workplaces.

To this end, workers must be given a voice in decision-making processes that affect their lives, and policies that ensure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes and reinvest in the communities where they operate must be restored. Only then can we build a post-pandemic economy that truly works for everyone – and is resilient enough to weather the next crisis far more effectively.