As we near the first month of the Coronavirus health crisis our attention at JVS has turned to ensuring that our clients have access to the income they need to support themselves and their families, be that unemployment insurance and other public and private benefits, or, re-employment whenever possible.
Low income workers are particularly vulnerable at this time. They do not have the luxury of remote work, they have little to no financial cushion. They face potential health and safety risks if they are working and financial hardships if they’ve been laid off. And, undocumented workers face the biggest challenge, with no access to safety net benefits and a high risk of workplace exploitation.
With our urgent focus on immediate financial and employment needs, we cannot and will not lose sight of the bigger picture. Good quality jobs and the role they play in the quality of life for our clients and their families, the impact they have on income inequality, and their profound importance to our society will continue to be a major organizational priority.
For the past two years, with historically low unemployment levels, our goal was to leverage the tight job market as much as we could to benefit the low-income workers we serve, whose earnings gains had lagged until just the last several years of the economic boom. While historically high layoffs and unemployment occupy most of our immediate attention, we will continue to put job quality front and center in our work.
Three local stories illustrate the importance of good jobs and great employers, even in times of crisis, when many employees and employers are fighting for survival. As Encore Boston Harbor opened its casino and resort, JVS prepared and helped more than 20 of our clients to be hired. At the time of hiring, the average wage of these new employees, many of them English language learners, averaged over $20 per hour with full benefits. Nearly three weeks ago, as Governor Baker implemented an order that non-essential companies cease to operate their facilities, Encore closed its casino and resort. Immediately upon closing, Encore assured their employees that they would receive full pay and benefits until April 15. Earlier this week, that date was extended to May 15, providing a lifeline to the more than 20 JVS clients and thousands of other Encore employees. A spokesperson for Encore told the Boston Globe how the company had invested heavily in training their employees, and when they do open, they need those skilled and talented employees to get back to work as fast as possible.
Also last week, we heard from several recent graduates of our retail bank training program, who had been hired with an average wage of $17 per hour with full benefits, that their employers were continuing to pay them for full time work with benefits despite ceasing on-site operations weeks earlier. And a JVS client, recently hired by an area utility company, was unable to start work but was assured he would begin as soon as the social distancing orders were lifted, and that his on-boarding and technical training could immediately begin remotely.
Of course job quality is not only about wages, benefits, and hiring practices. It is also about worker health and safety, particularly during a pandemic health crisis. This past week, I had a chance to hear a leading manufacturing company owner, Mike Tamasi, President and CEO of Accurounds in Avon, Massachusetts tell the National Skills Coalition how he and his company were going to great lengths to protect the health and safety of their employees as they produce critical parts for healthcare and other essential industries. Tamasi spoke to the first priority of health and safety, but also spoke to the ongoing need for skills training to ensure that manufacturers and other businesses continue to operate now and when the health crisis ends and the economic recovery begins.
Public policy responses will also be critically important to ensure better quality jobs and broader economic opportunity. Obviously, expanded unemployment benefits are the most urgent public investment, and with the new federal COVID-19 package, those benefits have been widened substantially.
Three other public policy tools—increased minimum wages, higher Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC), and universal healthcare coverage—will have important ramifications for job quality and broader economic opportunity. With a weakened economy and over-taxed state budgets, there will be a great deal of push back on these fronts, but the data is clear that higher minimum wages and higher EITC levels, along with access to healthcare, are among the most important policy tools we have to support higher quality jobs and reduce income inequality. While it will undoubtedly draw a great deal of criticism, an economic downturn that will hurt so many low-income workers is exactly the time to continue stepped up minimum wages and increased federal and state EITC.
Universally available healthcare coverage is critically important at a time when so many workers are losing their employer healthcare, and the federal government’s choice to not open the enrollment period for Obamacare was an ill-timed decision that could hurt tens of thousands of workers.
It needs to be noted in any discussion of job quality during this crisis and beyond, that undocumented workers are the most vulnerable low-income workers of all, and will suffer greatly. Undocumented workers, who are not eligible for public safety net benefits or unemployment insurance, will experience great pressure to take any available job, regardless of health and safety dangers. It will be incumbent upon state Attorneys General to carefully monitor workplace health and safety violations as well as other unscrupulous employer violations of undocumented workers’ vulnerabilities, such as wage theft.
When we emerge from this public health crisis, and begin the long road to economic recovery, it is critically important that we don’t revert to the same policies, practices, and conditions that helped create the historically high levels of income inequality we face today. Quality jobs and all the elements that support them will be more important than ever.