One thing we learned when COVID first hit over a year ago was just how essential some workers are.
True, every worker is important to some extent; they all keep the economic wheels spinning.
But for the daily necessities used to survive during sequestration, we needed grocery store shelvers, cashiers and delivery drivers. We also needed food processors — the people who carve chickens in factories and pick the vegetables and fruits on farms.
On top of that, medical personnel, including doctors, nurses and technicians, were essential to keeping many of us alive.
And, of course, we needed emergency personnel — police, firefighters, EMTs.
So the pandemic taught us how necessary these people are and that they deserve higher pay — hazard pay in some instances — medical benefits and worker protections. Legislators fell all over themselves to increase the federal minimum wage, higher and higher. They also insisted that employers provide masks, hand sanitizer and plexiglass sneeze guards to keep essential workers from being infected by customers. And they demanded that customers treat workers with dignity and listen when they were told to mask up. Right?
Then there were other workers, not so immediately essential (but still important!) who were sidelined by COVID as their jobs vanished and their industries disappeared. Especially hard hit were hospitality and tourism workers in restaurants and hotels. Fortunately, many were able to fall back on government assistance provided by their states — supplemented by the American Rescue Plan of 2021, among other programs — to make ends meet while waiting for the economy to recover.
And it has worked. As the numbers of infection have gone down while the rate of vaccination goes up, the economy has been improving. The state’s unemployment rate was 5.2% in March, compared to a pandemic high of 13.5% in spring 2020, the Journal reported last week.
But we’re still not there yet. Some are still, for one reason or another, out of work.
The reasons include fear of infection — some are immunocompromised — and lack of child care. And, yes, some no doubt don’t want to go back to stressful or demanding jobs that pay less than what they’re receiving in government benefits. Their reluctance is understandable.
But they can’t stay on government assistance forever. It’s not fair to the rest of us.
At least 21 red states, in an attempt to encourage workers to return to the workforce, have cut off the $300 federal supplements to state unemployment checks. Some of these are states with tight labor markets, according to a JP Morgan research team, so the decision is “tied to politics, not economics.”
In other words, they want to keep low-wage workers working for low wages rather than risk employers offering them more to come back to work.
Our senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, have asked Gov. Roy Cooper to halt the $300 federal supplement that is currently assisting North Carolinians. So far, though he has reinstated all work-search requirements, he’s refused to halt the assistance. “This pandemic has hit a lot of people hard,’’ he said last week.
“Let’s invest in child care and let’s increase the number of slots,” he added. “I’m willing to work with legislators, with federal, local, state. We’re talking about potential employment bonuses … we’re talking about potentially helping our hospitality industry, but you’re going to leave a lot of people hurting if you simply just cut it ($300 supplement) off right now.”
Cooper’s not being stubborn; he’s being realistic. Access to child care was a big problem before the pandemic hit. In North Carolina, the average cost of child care is about $8,113 annually — about $676 a month — according to the Economic Policy Institute. For some households, that’s a huge chunk of their monthly earnings. And it prevents some from participating in the economy.
The pandemic revealed many faults in our economic system, including the low pay received by some of the hardest workers and the lack of structural assistance for working families. Fortunately, this pause provided us with an opportunity to reshuffle the deck a little bit, right?