The coronavirus pandemic has not only driven the economy into a recession, but fundamentally changed the relationship between workers and their workplace. That makes this a Labor Day like no other.
Some changes, such as work from home for those privileged enough to have a job that can be done remotely, might become permanent features of the economy. A socially distant world meant some jobs disappeared — like those in the entertainment sector — and other jobs became newly essential, although early recognition and respect of front line workers might prove to have been short-lived. Work-related tasks and challenges also changed, including enforcing sanitation and mask requirements, risking infection in the workplace, and managing a child’s school day while working.
Then there are the many who don’t have a job at all.
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is 13.7% — among the highest of any state in the nation. According to a new report from the PA Budget and Policy Center, Pennsylvania’s economy shrank faster than the national average but the partial recovery has also been faster. The economic devastation, the report found, had a disparate impact on low-wage workers, women, and workers of color, including immigrants.
Even before the pandemic, Pennsylvania was behind other states in the protections it offers workers — starting with a shameful $7.25 minimum wage that a Republican-controlled legislature won’t consider increasing. With the expiration of federal enhanced unemployment benefits last month, and uncertainty about an extra $300 that should accompany future unemployment checks, some are hurting now more than they did in the early months.
Replacing wages is crucial to stop the bleeding, which is why the notion of stimulus checks emerged early into the pandemic and why Congress initially increased unemployment benefits by $600 per month.
While wages are key, losing a job means losing much more than income. With work so ingrained into all aspects of American life, culture, and value systems, when work disappears so can a sense of purpose and identity.
Economics Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and Princeton economist Anne Case found that the drop in American life expectancy in recent years can be explained by ‘deaths of despair’ — overdose, suicide, and alcohol related live diseases. Deaton and Case explain that the increase of death of despair, particularly among white men, can’t be explained by short term economic downturns but by the long term structure of the economy. Among the drivers were deindustrialization and loss of union jobs — which provided income but also status and a sense of belonging.
A Penn study published in December found that the closure of auto plants led to large spikes in overdose deaths in the same county. The loss of jobs due to the pandemic, with uncertainty on whether some will ever return, could drive a similar process of despair.
The pandemic-induced recession is a dual crisis: an economic crisis and a crisis of despair. By responding swiftly to the former, lawmakers at every level of government can have a positive impact on the latter.
The first step is to replace lost wages — Congress can do that by issuing another round of stimulus checks and extending the enhanced unemployment benefits — both provisions of the HEROES act. In addition, lawmakers in D.C. and Harrisburg need to create health insurance bridges to remove the stress that a loss of a job means loss of healthcare — a terrifying prospect especially in a pandemic. In addition, the state and city should look to pass laws that require businesses that re-open to offer laid off employees their job back before they rehire anyone else. This measure could be crucial, for example, for the roughly 2,000 Philadelphia stadium workers represented by UNITE HERE. The California legislature passed this type of bill last week.
These protections won’t only help with a quicker recovery, they will also give a glimmer of hope to workers who are sidelined for months.
This Labor Day is different than the ones that came before — both in the number of people who have been cut off from their regular labors, and in how much our relationship to and expectations of work have had to change. Leaders at every level of government must recognize this new landscape and understand the actions they take can relieve financial burdens — and real suffering.