Workforce inequalities must be addressed before another economic or health crisis

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The impact of the coronavirus is already taking its toll on the nation’s economy and on workers with low wages, estimated to be about 44 percent of the workforce. 

Within just a few weeks, this public health crisis rattled international markets, causing the U.S. economy to head towards a recession. Its urgency is unquestionable. Workers in low-wage jobs are more likely to be young, women, people of color and immigrants. For example, African-American and Latinx workers, who are twice as likely to earn incomes below the poverty level and are overrepresented in affected service industries, have been hit the hardest. For them, this unprecedented crisis has fully exposed the structural vulnerabilities in the work lives of caregivers, grocery store clerks and many other workers on the frontline of the pandemic. The deep seated economic and structural inequalities that exist among America’s workforce aren’t new but our response should be.  

While higher paid professionals who possess a college education and advanced degrees can often be paid to work from home, workers with less education and limited employment pathways are having to provide essential services and facing greater risks of getting the coronavirus or being laid off. 

As more of the low-wage workforce is deemed essential, it is no wonder why these workers need basic economic protections. The insecure conditions of these high-contact jobs include low wages and few benefits. Cashiers, food service workers and personal care aides — some of the most at-risk jobs in this pandemic — can earn annual incomes below $25,000. Additionally, only 3 in 10 workers in the lowest wage bracket had access to paid sick leave. While these workers, who are disproportionately minorities, are helping to ensure that local communities have access to food and basic services, we can expect that a portion of this workforce will experience significant job losses and become ill during this national crisis.

For sure, taking action to address the immediate needs of these workers is critical. Providing direct cash assistance, paid leave, food and nutrition assistance, unemployment insurance, health care and child care is decisively the right step. Removing financial barriers in the interim would directly help workers who may become exposed or sick, and those who are caring for family members who may be infected with COVID-19. 

But beyond these critical measures, policymakers must prioritize high quality employment pathways for workers in low-wage jobs. Future investment must respond to immediate economic effects while also laying the groundwork to combat the long-term unemployment that is sure to come. Principally, that means fortifying a future economy with a workforce and employment system designed to counter enduring and pervasive economic inequality.  

To do this, it will require the nation’s workforce development system to strengthen connections between reemployment and training programs with good jobs that provide sustaining wages and benefits. By focusing on job quality, the role of the workforce development system will help reshape labor markets to be more equitable to all workers, especially in communities with historic barriers to employment, including opportunity for youth, people of color, immigrants and individuals impacted by the justice system.

Specifically, for any increase in workforce funding, policymakers should put in place workforce consumer protections and set the following conditions to improve job quality:  

First, provide every person who wants to work with the security they need to care for themselves and for loved ones during this time of crisis. That means passing comprehensive and inclusive national paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. Also, institutionalizing a federal scheduling policy framework so that workers can enroll in training and education programs without forgoing earnings and incorporating set-asides targeting immediate reemployment and training services to workers in low-wage jobs who have experienced job losses or extended unemployment due to the coronavirus.

Second, incentivize equitable practices, such as affirming labor management partnership arrangements that bring together business, labor and government to ensure access to quality education and training opportunities, while also facilitating strong employment outcomes and strategies that prioritize the employment stability and earnings of workers in low-wage jobs — especially workers of color and immigrants. One approach could include designating resources for workforce intermediaries that partner with local governments to support community colleges, community-based organizations, worker centers and labor-management partnerships that have a proven track record of providing quality training and placing participants into good jobs.  

Third, renew attention on building foundational skills by directing increased funds for adult education and literacy services for workers in low-wage jobs to help them complete their high school diploma or equivalency, improve their English language literacy skills and access integrated education and training, as well as postsecondary education opportunities. 

Fourth, improve the long-term employability of workers with severe barriers to employment by giving workers immediate access to employment and earnings while also increasing their skills, work experience and networks through various transitional job models such subsidized employment programs. Here, standardizing the provision of child care, transportation, mental and behavioral health, and other supportive services into employment and training will also be key to mitigating economic insecurity.

This public health and economic crisis will eventually end. But to make certain these emergency, short-term efforts have the long-lasting effects to outlive the next recession — or pandemic — workforce equity must be fundamental to policy change now.   

Rosa M. García is the director of the Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Livia Lam is a senior fellow and director of Workforce Development Policy at the Center for American Progress.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Health care Inequality low wages Unemployment workforce

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