Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

COVID-19: We need strong social protections for families on the edge

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As the hotel industry staggers under the blow of the pandemic, millions of workers are losing hours and jobs, and facing dangers in the workplace. UNITE HERE, the union that represents workers in the industry such as housekeepers and janitors, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of their members may be laid off. Housekeepers with a typical supply cart at a hotel in Fort Myers, FL. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Congress should focus on protecting workers and providing urgent help to those who need it, instead of bailing out giant corporations and widening the inequality gap.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing deep systemic inequality in the US—and is quickly making the disparities worse, as millions of marginalized people are struggling to pay the bills, stay healthy, and survive.  

As many of us stay home to help “flatten the curve,” millions in this country can’t even consider that option. Even steps that seem simple—stocking up on groceries, avoiding public transportation, staying home when ill, visiting a doctor—are impossible for millions who don’t have the savings, the health insurance, or sick leave 

recent poll found that nearly one in five adults reported they’d been laid off or had their work hours cut because of the pandemic; for those in lower income jobs, it climbed to one in four. Those who have the least power are now the most exposed: women, people of color, immigrants and refugees, and those doing precarious, low-wage, dangerous work. 

This is a terrifying moment for everyonebut the government can do a lot to soften the blow for millions of people in our country. 

Last night, Congress finally passed a significant package that offers some relief—but it falls woefully short in critical areas. A third package—expected to pass late this week or early next week—must address these gaps.  

As Congress continues to battle over these measures, it’s on all of us to make clear what matters most. While giant corporations push for massive tax cuts and bailouts, the rest of us need to stand up and say loud and clear: put people and families first.   

That is why we are calling on Congress to prioritize the needs of those without the option to isolate, as well as those who are exposed to risk, at work and at home:  

Women and gender-diverse people: Women are on the front lines at work and at home. Women are disproportionately represented in low-paying, insecure jobs that offer few protections such as sick leave. They are also laboring in sectors that are vital right nowthey are nurses, aides, cleaners, medical technicians, domestic workers, cashiers. 

At home, they do the vast amount of care work, which has only grown heavier with school closures and increased illnesscaring for children, the elderly and frail, doing the cleaning and laundry and cooking.  

In addition, it is well-documented that women often face increased intimate partner violence during emergencies. Experts are concerned that isolation may heighten the risk. 

Low-wage workers: Decades of stagnating wages have left millions without resources for emergencies. In fact, the vast majority of people in the US have less than $1,000 saved. But it’s not just low wages. It’s lack of paid sick leave, lack of vacation time, lack of basic protections on the job. Seventy percent of the lowest paid workers have no ability to earn paid sick days. Moreover, millions are without any form of healthcare. 

Farm and domestic workers: Farmworkers are still in the fields harvesting crops today. Domestic workers are still caring for the elderly and infirm. Most of the workers in these jobs are immigrants or people of colorThey make up the backbone of our food chain and care industry, but they do not enjoy simple protections, such as a 40hour workweek. 

Gig workers: Some 36 percent of US workers are in the gig economy (roughly 57 million people). Since they are not considered employees, they enjoy few if any protections and benefits. They are now the ones providing lifelines to millions of homes—delivering supplies (including groceries), providing emergency transportation—but they have no way to take off even an hour of paid time, or protect themselves from exposure. 

Migrant workers, especially undocumented: Roughly eight million people are working in the US without proper documentation. They have been paying into systems such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid—but they are unable to collect any of these benefits. When they are laid off, they have nowhere to turn for a safety net.  

Service workers: Millions of workers in essential roles—grocery clerks, gas station attendants, hospital aides, and cleaners—are currently compelled to go to work, often without personal protective equipment or training to handle pandemic conditions. On the other side of the coin, the hospitality industry is rapidly closing down (hotels, restaurants), leaving millions suddenly cut off from their income.  

Homeless: The most basic measures are unavailable to those on the streets: running water for sanitation, isolation from others.  

Asylum seekers and other migrants: People who came to the US in search of safety are already under attack from the xenophobic policies of the Trump administration, and may fear seeking healthcare and other basic services 

Puerto Rico and other territoriesThis administration has a woeful history of supporting US citizens in territories outside the mainland (most dramatically after Hurricane Maria)These populations endure greater rates of poverty, poor public health services, and substandard nutrition, and are at heightened risk today.  

What must we do to live up to this historic moment? 

The truth is, our country is not here by chance, but rather by choice. Political leaders made myriad decisions over the years that could build a stronger and more just economy with protections for the most vulnerableBut they didn’t. In crisis, it’s vital to make sure our response addresses the very real needs of millions of people on the edge.  

Congress must take swift action to: 

Mandate paid sick time: More than ever before, the virus reveals how essential it is that all workers be able to stay home when they’re sick. The likelihood of enjoying paid sick leave plummets as jobs become both more low-paying, and more demanding of physical attendance. Congress recently passed legislation that mandated paid sick leave—but it excludes 80 percent of workers. We need to do better. 

Mandate paid family and medical leave: This pandemic is a stark illustration of how important it is for workers to have paid time to care for family needs. Paid leave must not be limited to childcare, given the current widespread need to care for the elderly. 

Increase federal food assistanceAs jobs disappear and hours are cut, families will be struggling to find money to pay the bills and put food on the tableFurther, as schools close, millions of children are missing vital meals. The recently passed law allocates $650 million for food programs; while it helps, it’s just a drop in the bucket. 

Ensure healthcare measures: Everyone should be able to get recommended evaluation and care for coronavirus for free, including a coronavirus vaccine once it is developed. The recent legislation is a step in the right direction, as it mandates free COVID-19 testing without co-pays or deductibles; we need to enforce and make tests available. Congress also needs to protect against price-gouging of tests and vaccine. This should include a boost in funding for hospitals and clinics to help them manage operations.  

Increase unemployment insurance and bolster state systemsAs each day brings more layoffs, people will be in dire need of benefits to keep their families afloat. We need to drastically loosen requirements and red tape for workers, and prevent unscrupulous employers from denying workers this compensation. The new legislation does takes steps to provide extensions to, and additional funds for, unemployment benefits. 

Implement safety net measures: Put an immediate moratorium on evictions; prevent utility shut-offs; preserve medical benefits; remove penalties on late payment of loans.   

Protect migrants: The Trump administration must immediately suspend all immigration enforcement operations and “public charge” restrictions on accessing services and release people from overcrowded, unsafe immigration detention facilities.  

Stimulate the economy in ways that benefit people, not corporations: This is not a moment for corporate bailouts and tax cuts; instead, we must focus all stimulus efforts on consumers and working families. Congress should: direct immediate cash payments to all families and individuals; increase federal funds for Medicaid to cover surge costs; prohibit subsidies for huge fossil fuel companies; refuse to implement a payroll tax that would decimate Social Security and provide no help for laid-off workers; deny any  corporate tax cut; and tie any assistance for corporations to specific constraints (e.g., no stock buybacks, a $15 minimum wage). 

Protect front-line medical, care, and other exposed workers:The definition of front-line workers needs to change in this moment. OSHA must issue a temporary (and then permanent) emergency standard to respond to this virus. Employers must obtain and provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to medical workers, and expand training and support to workers not ordinarily trained in prevention and safety (such as grocery clerks, janitors, and others). The government should provide PPE from the federal stockpile as needed.  

Add your voice to the swell of demand: Call on Congress to do the right thing today!