More workplace protections are needed

Thank yous don’t put food on the table

ON LABOR DAY, we celebrated working people, and the achievements of the union movement which make our families more secure and make our society and economy stronger.  Among them: unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and workplace safety regulations.

The experience of the pandemic has underscored the vital role of all those protections, and shows we need to act to strengthen them.

Imagine what would have happened to individuals, families, and businesses if we hadn’t had an unemployment assistance program.  Those benefits helped reduce hunger, homelessness, and despair.  They gave recipients money to spend, supporting our whole economy.  For over 300,000 Massachusetts residents, those benefits ended this week.

The pandemic has made it clear that we need to preserve and strengthen unemployment insurance.  We need to ensure that the program has adequate reserves to pay benefits in hard times.

The Massachusetts unemployment trust fund was the sixth worst funded in the country before the pandemic. That means that when there’s a recession we have to borrow money from the federal government.  Right now we owe $2.26 billion.  (That doesn’t include about $20 billion from the federal government that paid for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and extended benefits during the pandemic.  That’s money Massachusetts employers don’t have to pay back.)

The governor proposes using $1 billion of the state surplus to pay off that debt.  This would reduce business payments into the unemployment trust fund somewhat over the next 20 years. But it doesn’t solve the chronic underfunding of the reserves we need to build up in good times so we can pay benefits in bad times.  We need solutions to resolve this problem before the next recession.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provided funds for hundreds of thousands of people not traditionally eligible for unemployment, like independent contractors, self-employed people, and seasonal workers – workers who would have been left entirely without income otherwise during the pandemic.

Those jobs are a fast-growing share of the economy, which means that in future downturns, more people won’t have support when they lose their jobs.  We need to find ways to include more people permanently in unemployment insurance, to ensure that those who are entitled actually get it, and to spread the cost and benefits more broadly.  The ballot question by Uber and Lyft would change the law and permanently make their drivers ineligible for unemployment.  That is a move in the wrong direction.

Another lesson from the pandemic is the importance of people in low wage jobs: caring for older people, those with disabilities, and young children; and working in retail stores and restaurants.  Last year, these jobs were finally recognized as “essential” to our society and economy.  But they have never been paid adequately.  From home care to assisted living to nursing homes, employers and clients face a growing and critical shortage of workers.  One of the biggest problems at the beginning of the pandemic was that 17 percent of nursing home positions were vacant, which made it much harder to care for their residents safely.  As staff got sick or left in fear of infection, the vacancy rate soared to 40 percent.

Nursing homes and home care programs depend on public funding.  Payment rates need to reflect the real cost of care, including wage rates that can attract, train, and retain skilled workers.  Direct care for older people and those with disabilities is among the fastest growing job sectors, but inadequate pay will mean shortages continue to grow and people go without the care they need and deserve.

As of last month, 5,200 home care consumers were waiting for needed and authorized services; there just weren’t enough workers.  If home care pays less than Walmart or Burger King, and you have to travel between jobs, with erratic and unpredictable schedules, we can’t really expect people to choose to enter this workforce.

The same is true in child care and early education.  Four hundred centers have closed permanently and others have reduced enrollments as providers can’t find staff.  Parents who can’t find child care can’t return to work.  Neither can early educators who are parents. Adequate public funding to sustain quality programs and attract talented and trained teachers is crucial for children, families, and the economy.

Our economy is more and more divided.  Salaried professionals are far more likely to be able to work from home, to afford child care, and to avoid catching COVID.  Those at the lower end of the economy have to work in public-facing, less-safe jobs; they live in more crowded and unstable housing with the possibility of eviction or foreclosure; they’re more likely to catch and spread COVID at work and at home; and they’re more likely to become unemployed.

Gov. Charlie Baker needs to reinstate the workplace protections he eliminated last month and enforce federal OSHA guidelines in all workplaces.  Those guidelines state that masks should be worn in public indoor spaces in areas of high or substantial transmission, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC says that people who work in person are twice as likely to contract COVID as those who work at home.

I’m sure all the signs that sprouted on lawns early in the pandemic thanking essential workers warmed the hearts of our lowest-paid workers, but a sweet “thank you!” doesn’t put food on the table – or keep them safe at work.

Meet the Author

Patricia Jehlen

State senator, Somerville
It’s time to match words with action.

Patricia Jehlen is the state senator from Somerville. She serves as Senate chair of the joint committees on Elder Affairs and on Labor and Workforce Development, as well as co-chair of the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund Study Commission.