In America, it seems, workers always come last. With more than 31 million out-of-work Americans now cut off from enhanced unemployment benefits, and with Washington’s failure to deliver relief, working families and the broader economy are set to fall off a cliff.
Contempt for workers informs Beltway chatter: those on unemployment have been lazy, goes the thinking, forgoing work to indulge in the US Cares Act’s $600-a-week boost in benefits. These people seem to invite suspicion: they are “overpaid”, or, worse, “paid not to work”, and they – not the deadly pandemic – are holding back our economic recovery. Only taking away the extra cash will spur them to once again pack our groceries and serve our burgers. Or, as the marketing department would have it, be heroes.
That’s perverse logic. For one thing, the payments have helped, not hurt, the economy. And the only reason the short-term benefit boost may sound like a lot – with two-thirds of those on unemployment currently netting more than when they worked – is that for too many, work doesn’t pay. Nearly 40% of US adults couldn’t cover a $400 emergency. How about the seemingly endless emergency of a pandemic, no job and pennies for unemployment?
To be clear: the “disincentive” to work is Covid-19, the disease that has killed 170,000 Americans and counting. As it ravages the country, jobs have vanished. There are more than three times as many unemployed Americans as there are job openings.
But by all means, let’s blame the workers. Let’s spread the misinformation that the unemployed are lounging around drinking beer and watching Netflix all day as distressed employers pound the pavement for labor.
If we want to make work pay more than unemployment, the path is clear. We must raise wages for those who are able to find work in this pandemic, while ensuring employers are keeping staff safe.
The corporations now making record profits can afford it. Amazon’s profits doubled from last year, as did those of health insurer UnitedHealth Group. Others – in industries from big pharma to big tech – are also thriving. Amid all the suffering and economic deprivation, they are amassing customers, sales and cash.
The combined wealth of billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg has jumped by billions of dollars since the start of the pandemic. Who was that again who is “overpaid”?
Some companies stepped up this spring to offer hazard pay – for example, a $2-an-hour boost to reward workers taking on great personal risk to work. But for many workers, that supplement has already vanished, even as the pandemic has worsened in so many communities.
Workers and labor unions have engaged in various actions for better pay and safety measures, with mixed or uncertain success. High unemployment rates and uncertainty over the economy are filling many workers with fear, making some hesitant to speak out.
The federal government must play a bigger role in ensuring workers earn a living wage – especially in this crisis. It could offer those earning below a certain level (say, $15 an hour) a weekly bonus to their paychecks – an enhanced employment/hazard pay bonus that mirrors the enhanced unemployment scheme.
But means-testing benefits is often fraught, logistically and politically. Beyond that, the sheer size of the catastrophe – the health crisis as well as the economic one – means it is not a time to go small-bore and cheap out on our “heroes”. It is time to go big, to meet the moment. Proposals to grant most American households $2,000 a month are a step in this direction.
When America was reeling from the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt rolled out the New Deal, a massive public works and financial reform program. Its Works Progress Administration employed millions of out-of-work Americans to build infrastructure and housing, and to produce some of the best literature and public art of the 20th century.
There may be tens of millions unemployed in this country, but there is plenty of work to do. We need more public school teachers, tents for outdoor learning, N95 masks, Covid testing swabs, energy-efficient infrastructure and yes, public art. How about a Pandemic Jobs Program that pulls in big elements of the Green New Deal?
With every passing day, more Americans die and more lose jobs that may never come back. Not to mention the climate emergency that is only becoming more urgent. In this unprecedented situation, we have a choice. We can keep debating how to deny unemployed Americans $600 a week, or we can rebuild this country while ensuring it is more humane, productive and sustainable.