Workers are Drowning: Congress Must Help

By Molly Bashay

As the toll of the virus and economic fallout worsens, the pressure is on to provide workers and families the relief they need. Black and Latinx workers are among the hardest hit by the economic crisis due to a mix of high employment in high-risk industries like hospitality, retail, caregiving, meatpacking and others, as well as pervasive structural inequities. Among Native Americans, data is more sporadic, but the immediate need for health interventions and long-term workforce development opportunities is clear.  Along with providing workers and families with the immediate relief and critical supports necessary to meet their basic needs, both the House and Senate should give serious consideration to a substantial investment in jobs and the nation’s workforce development system.

Robust investments in workforce development and training can help prepare workers to access good jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits once it is safe to return to work. Congress has already missed the deadline to extend the weekly $600 emergency unemployment insurance payments to support displaced workers and families who can’t afford to wait any longer. This extension and other lifelines are all on the table as Congress debates another coronavirus stimulus package.  

Millions of American families still crave relief from financial strain and the burden of unemployment, not to mention the enduring public health pandemic endangering all of us. Yet Congress has stalled nearly four months since enacting the last stimulus package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. House Democrats’ interim attempt, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) ACT, passed the House in May. The Senate only recently introduced its opening bid, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, which falls far short of the urgency of the moment.

Another way to offer stability and avert the long-term damage of unemployment would be a subsidized employment program using public funds to create temporary job opportunities for people looking for work. This targeted equity tool can ensure communities greatly affected by the pandemic achieve economic opportunity through accessible pathways to stable, long-term employment once it is safe to return to work. Subsidized employment programs provide immediate economic support through work, while also improving workers’ long-term employability by increasing their skills, work experience, and professional networks. These programs are not new: subsidized employment is a tried-and-tested policy response to labor market disruptions, deployed in the New Deal’s Work Progress Administration and more recently after the 2008 Great Recession through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s TANF Emergency Fund. Other pending legislation supports expanding subsidized employment, including the Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act, the Pandemic TANF Assistance Act and the Economic Ladders to End Volatility and Advance Training to Employment (ELEVATE) Act, but each faces an uphill battle in Congress as the two houses remain gridlocked.

As Congress debates the next relief package, policymakers must center equity and work to increase the economic security of people with low incomes, particularly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, immigrants, youth of color, and people impacted by the criminal justice system—all of whom face the greatest barriers to good jobs with comprehensive benefits and family-sustaining wages. Workers and jobseekers who faced workforce challenges before the pandemic are being further economically marginalized by the pandemic. How we emerge from this crisis as a nation will depend on how intentionally we invest in these populations.