As I sit here writing from home I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to be in the privileged position where I can do my job and earn an income in the comfort of my own extra bedroom. Millions of Americans are not so lucky. Unlike the last Great Recession of the 1990’s, which hit blue collar, service, and professional workers with nearly equal ferocity, this Coronavirus Recession has hit low-income workers harder than anyone else. Already reeling from decades of unequal income growth, wherein low-income workers barely gained ground, even during the height of the recent boom, they are now in total free fall. Income inequality was an acute challenge before; it is now a crisis.
I began to worry about the economic implications of the Corona crisis more than three weeks ago when dozens of recently laid off hotel workers began showing up at our offices for help to apply for unemployment benefits. As it turned out, they were the “canaries in the coal mine” because only two weeks later, hundreds of hotels and restaurants throughout the Boston area began laying off thousands of employees.
Healthcare workers such as nursing aides and home health aides may still have the advantage of a regular paycheck, but they face the challenges of very difficult and even dangerous working conditions. We have heard from JVS clients about forced overtime, too little protection from contagious exposure, and no flexibility to manage childcare in the face of closed schools and childcare centers. For service workers still working in health care, distribution companies, grocery stores, restaurants, and other sectors, the notion of working from home is an impossible luxury.
Low-income workers face a myriad of challenges in this current crisis. They typically have little to no financial cushion, so immediate income loss may lead to eviction, foreclosure, unpaid bills, and a cascading set of economic challenges that they may never recover from. Undocumented low-income workers are facing the biggest challenge of all. They are not eligible for unemployment insurance, and are not eligible for other safety net benefits that most documented immigrants can rely on as a backstop. Undocumented low-income workers will be forced to rely on family, friends, churches, and philanthropy to avoid starvation, serious illness, and homelessness.
When we are able to go back to work and begin re-building the shattered economy, the extreme negative impact on low-income workers will dramatically exacerbate income inequality. It will be incumbent upon our local, state and federal leaders to begin addressing extreme inequality in a serious meaningful way, or millions of Americans will suffer and we will all experience the consequences.
At JVS, our immediate goals in this crisis are to get as many people back to work in growing occupational areas to earn more income as quickly as possible, and to help our clients continue to learn skills so that they can best take advantage of the recovery when it happens. And, as the economy recovers, we will continue to prioritize services and strategies that focus on good quality jobs that can help our clients and their families thrive and help our nation address the long un-addressed challenge of income inequality.