By Rich Stolz, Executive Director of One America
Livia Lam, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
COVID-19 has exposed deep inequities in Washington’s economy and health system. Low-wage workers, immigrants and refugees, and people of color are in the majority of jobs now deemed essential. Without personal protective equipment, limited access to health insurance, lower wages , and fewer financial assets, the rest of us are depending on them to work and to stay healthy while working. It is a cruel reality that the workers on the front lines of the crisis have the fewest resources. Early data is showing communities of color are especially hit hard as Black and brown workers are dying at higher rates than other Americans.
Well before the outbreak, technological advances, globalization, demographic shifts, and climate change were reshaping the world of work. Although the jobless rate was low, a shortage of living wage, quality jobs persisted. Without bold action, the coronavirus recession will exacerbate the already growing gap between the rich and everyone else. Washington state must respond by rebuilding a workforce infrastructure that breaks down barriers to good jobs and generates better working conditions for everyone.
Recently enacted laws to expand paid sick days and family leave, ensure food security, enhance unemployment insurance, and direct cash payments to help workers are insufficient. As policymakers consider additional relief, the actions we take must lay the groundwork for a workforce with higher wages, better working conditions, and a reliable safety net.
We need to employ proven workforce responses that increase the supply of secure jobs, affirm labor protections, and encompass the learning, knowledge, and skills of workers. That means prioritizing employment stability and earnings of low-wage workers by designating resources for reemployment and training strategies with a track record of placing participants into good jobs. Policy change must improve the long-term employability of workers with multiple barriers to employment. By setting up states and cities to support transitional job initiatives, chronically under-employed and unemployed individuals will have access to work as well as expand upon their skills.
Business, community, labor, workforce, and education groups must systematically approach the future of work in a different way. We need the restructuring of institutional incentives to increase wages and make sure workers are equally represented across all kinds of jobs. Washington state is leading the way in reshaping the career trajectories of immigrant workers who are underemployed and assumed to be less-skilled but in fact bring local economies a great deal of previous work experience that is highly specialized.
The good news is our region is beginning to address these issues through Mayor Durkan’s Future of Work Subcabinet and Seattle-King County’s Workforce Development Council. Gov. Jay Inslee’s Future of Work Task Force devised recommendations on how to do this in the face of workplace change, including strengthening worker protections, using workforce resources to create more living wage jobs, and reinstating a state office of employee ownership. Much work is needed to move from recommendation to action.
It shouldn’t take a pandemic to reveal how socioeconomic disparities undermine the broader economy and our public health. A full recovery from the crisis will require all of us to reshape our economy. When social distancing subsides, we will be faced with a choice: do we return to old ways that leave workers and communities vulnerable to the next crisis, or do we center a commitment to equity, and promote more resilient economies that support workers and protect public health?