The pandemic exposed how the US economy is failing America’s workers. Here’s how we can fix those flaws.

  • At the beginning of the pandemic and throughout, we’ve clapped in support of essential and frontline workers.
  • We can’t stop there. There are four ways we too can help bolster our broken economy.
  • Sarita Gupta is director of the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) program.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Every evening at the onset of the pandemic, people around the United States clapped for frontline workers, an important public ritual that helped hold us together during uncertain times.

Our economy has collapsed in the months since. America ranks among the worst performers of all economically advanced countries when it comes to job security, a reality that’s been turbocharged by COVID-19. Millions who have experienced pandemic-driven job loss remain unemployed and without the support needed to weather the ongoing economic downturn.

As we approach Labor Day, a time to honor the country’s working people, essential workers — who are disproportionately Black, people of color, immigrants, women, and other marginalized communities —  are being forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. A $300 decrease in weekly supplemental federal unemployment benefits has meant families already on the brink of financial ruin are now at risk of losing their homes and not having enough to eat. Meanwhile, billionaires have doubled and tripled their wealth

The economic fallout from the pandemic is shedding new light on the uneven economic realities faced by working individuals, families, and communities across the US. 

This collective experience is teaching us that all workers are essential to a functioning economy—including grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, farmers, caregivers, and factory, food processing, and restaurant and transportation workers—as they are the ones who have kept this country alive, despite being denied basic benefits or a say over their conditions.

This is a signal moment, one that demands a transformation, not just a retreat to “normal.” Normal was devouring, unsustainable, and defined by decades of deepening inequality, rising precarity, and economic immobility. 

This time of crisis is our chance to reimagine an economy that works for everyone. There are ways to not just clap for essential workers, but to clap back at our broken economy. Here are four issues that we must be advocates for, and the organizations that help us do that.

A decent standard of living 

This means decent and fair compensation for work—a living wage—that enables all working people, regardless of gender, race, citizenship status, or ability, to meet their most basic needs. Wages have remained stagnant over the last 40 years, despite a 70% rise in net productivity. Pre-pandemic median annual earnings for 44% of US workers was just $18,000 and almost 50% of government assistance in 2016 went to full-time working people who fell below the poverty line.  

We should follow the leadership of organizations like Jobs with Justice, the National Employment Law Project and One Fair Wage who have marshaled the collective power of working people across sectors to advance more just and fair compensation in places like New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and across sectors. Their work is a timely rudder for this moment.

Guaranteed access to healthcare, paid leave, and benefits 

Before the onset of the pandemic, one in four working people in the US—approximately 34 million people—lacked paid sick leave. While just 8% of working people in the top quarter of earnings lacked access to paid sick days, almost half of those in the lowest quarter faced the same challenge. Additionally, growing swaths of the workforce, including those in gig, domestic caregiving, food processing, and farm work, did not have access to healthcare and other basic benefits, particularly among immigrant and migrant communities. 

In the US, the pandemic is revealing how predicating an economy on a system that ties healthcare to employment and incentivizes limitations to paid leave and basic benefits impacts us all. 

Coalitions like Family Values @ Work and Paid Leave for All are making major strides in campaigning for and securing paid leave and sick days across the United States. We need to build an economy that guarantees access to critical benefits for all working people and their families.

 

A robust care infrastructure

Care work is essential to a functioning and sustainable economy. Whether caring for children or elderly parents, growing numbers of workers need care support to remain in the labor force. Yet, it remains barely affordable and accessible to many working families. 

Working parents in low-wage work have been found to spend up to a quarter of their annual income on childcare expenses. Today, many working parents are struggling to manage dueling work and childcare responsibilities intensified by school and childcare center closings.

Care work has long been undervalued in the US economy, which lags behind many industrialized countries in its approaches to childcare and eldercare. Care workers themselves were denied labor protections until just a few years ago and still continue to face low wages. Consequently, up to 42% of care workers have been found to rely on public assistance for their food, healthcare, and cash needs. 

We need a bold and robust infrastructure for caregiving that ensures working people can afford care. The National Domestic Worker Alliance is demonstrating how this national caregiving challenge can be addressed through its Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which has seen adoption in several states. Others like the National Women’s Law Center and Caring Across Generations are articulating and driving bold visions for universal care.

Safe and healthy working conditions 

Working people simply desire to conduct their work in environments where they can stay safe and healthy. Yet, this is not prioritized by many US employers where up to 50% of US workers face hazardous or unpleasant conditions. More recently, workers on the frontlines of the pandemic continue to find themselves working without adequate safety measures or equipment. 

This is disproportionately experienced among workers who are Black or come from other communities of color. Recent polls indicate that up to 73% of Black Americans have worked outside their homes during the pandemic compared to half of white workers. Some 68% of those Black workers working outside their homes were concerned with risks of contracting and spreading the virus. More importantly, Black workers were found to be more than two times as likely than white workers to experience retaliation by employers when they raised their concerns about COVID-19. 

We need an economy that values the safety of workers as people and as critical drivers of economic activity; where working people have a collective voice in shaping their work conditions without fear of retaliation.

Workers with organizations such as United for Respect are calling for changes that prioritize their safety and well-being amidst this pandemic. They are also experimenting around shared employer-worker governance models where workers can voice their concerns, including through the worker board they established at Toys “R” Us following its emergence from bankruptcy. CoWorker.org is supporting workers in the tech, gig, and other sectors to collectively raise their voices and transform their workplaces.

The rampant inequality working people face is not a fire that will burn itself out. The decisions we make, the demands we deliver, will determine whether we recover or relapse, whether we withstand this crisis and prevail over those to come. Let’s honor essential workers by committing to a fight to advance an economy that truly works for all. The future of work must be today.

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