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What we owe essential workers

What we owe essential workers
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Vitalina Williams worked in a grocery store in Massachusetts. Jason Hargrove drove a bus in Michigan. Vianna Thompson was a nurse in Nevada hospitals. And Agustin Rodriguez cut meat in a South Dakota pork processing plant. But these four Americans tragically had something in common: All worked in essential industries during the COVID-19 pandemic — and died of COVID-19.

Behind each week’s grim coronavirus statistics are people like Williams, Hargrove, Thompson and Rodriguez and the bereaved loved ones they leave behind. Countless other essential workers go to jobs every day in places like warehouses, trucks, hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies worried that they, too, may become ill.

Today we are grateful to all who put their lives and families at risk to do work essential to our collective welfare. Tomorrow, we need to pay the enormous debt we owe them for doing these jobs. As a society, we need to commit to protecting and caring for essential workers and their families in both the short and the long run. 

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We propose a seven-point program for doing so. 

  1. Ensure that necessary safety precautions are taken for essential workers.  This starts with having adequate personal protective equipment on the job, as well as giving these workers priority for COVID-19 testing. It means taking employees’ temperature at the start of every workday — and sending home with full pay those with fevers or other coronavirus symptoms, with a designated health care provider responsible for following up to provide assistance as needed. It also requires physical distancing whenever possible and other precautions tailored to each type of workplace. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the authority to issue such emergency temporary regulation but has been disappointingly slow in doing so.
  1. Workers should have a voice in shaping working conditions and an effective process for resolving disputes about their safety. Workers and their representatives should meet with managers frequently to agree on appropriate protective actions and resolve issues that arise. Since only 10 percent of U.S. workers belong to a union that can speak on their behalf in such discussions, new processes for consultation and representation need to be established at the company and perhaps at the industry or regional levels of the economy — something that can be accomplished through congressional action.
  2. Plans should be developed for recruiting and training a back-up workforce to fill in for essential workers who cannot continue working because of illness. America is beginning what will likely end up being the biggest workforce redeployment in decades. Economic incentives will be needed to encourage workers who have been laid off to take essential jobs that have related skill requirements. Some of the wage subsidy should come from state and federal governments, which benefit from reducing unemployment expenditures. Nowhere is this need for redeployment more apparent than in health care: Many hospital workers not involved in COVID-19 treatment are being laid off, while skilled nursing facilities, which are high-risk workplaces during the pandemic, face staffing shortages.
     
  3. Essential workers deserve “hero pay.” Employers should provide hazard pay incentives to all incumbent workers performing essential services that increase their risk of contracting the virus.
  1. Paid sick and family leave should be mandated for everyone working in essential jobs. Some firms are expanding paid leave, and the government emergency legislation requires limited temporary leave for those working in small firms. But a uniform national policy that does not exempt large firms is the only way to ensure broad and fair access to these critical benefits.
  1. Essential workers should be offered good benefits if they become disabled. To mitigate the worries those taking risks now have about the long-term consequences for their families should they experience illness or extended disabilities, these workers and families should be guaranteed health care coverage and income supplements for dependents equivalent to or greater than Social Security benefits provided to children of a deceased parent. 
  1. Immigrants who are essential workers should not have to worry about deportation during the pandemic. Many workers providing essential services are immigrants, and some are undocumented (including many farmworkers). For these workers to feel safe leaving their residences to work, they need assurance that they will not be at risk of deportation. Comprehensive immigration reform can be left to another day: Today we should agree on a simple ironclad guaranteed pause of immigration enforcement for essential workers and their families during the pandemic.

Ideally, all these actions would be put in place by the president and Congress and overseen by a council of government, business and labor leaders, as was the case in prior national emergencies such as World War II. But time is of the essence. In this crisis, governors are moving forward and demonstrating once again that states are our laboratories of democracy. They can implement many of these steps in their states and with like-minded governors — and, going forward, call on leaders in their states to work together toward creating a new and more equitable social contract for American workers.

Thomas A. Kochan is George M. Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Barbara Dyer is a senior lecturer and executive director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan.