The nature of work was rapidly changing before the COVID-19 outbreak: more part-time jobs and gig work, with fewer benefits and lower wages, even in a strong economy. What kind of work do we want when the pandemic passes?
Despite calls for “Rooseveltian” responses to this unprecedented pandemic, recently passed relief packages lack the scale and vision needed to help the more than 44 million Americans who have filed unemployment claims.
The scale of dislocation is vast: Nearly four in 10 workers in households with incomes under $40,000 have lost work. Even before the pandemic, those who have been laid off were disproportionately trapped in the low-wage jobs that increasingly define work in America. Now COVID-19 has exposed a low-paid frontline workforce disproportionately composed of women, people of color, young workers and immigrants.
Although care givers, drivers and fast-food workers have always been “essential” workers, as currently construed, these are dead-end jobs that offer little job security and exacerbate social and economic inequalities. Without a fundamental change to the nature of these jobs, posting testaments to these workers’ bravery and persistence on social media are mere platitudes.
Improving job quality for these — and all workers — requires a suite of policy changes. Here, the past cannot be prologue: The fallout from the North American Free Trade Agreement offers one example of what happens when displaced workers are given access to training without complementary job-quality standards. In its first 10 years, NAFTA led to a displacement of 879,280 jobs. Many of the 1.7 million jobs lost were of high quality, in the manufacturing sector and unionized. Most of the 794,174 estimated jobs created were low-quality, non-union jobs. Workers were no better off.
During the Great Recession, job training programs received a boost in funding to help workers increase their employment prospect through skills training. But much was spent on reemployment activities — low-intensity services such as helping people seek jobs — rather than on training. For job seekers who did receive job training, the same report suggests they had difficulty obtaining employment due to a lack of available jobs.
Fortunately, history also provides examples of enlightened policymaking. During the Great Depression, policymakers created the Civilian Conservation Corps. As part of a larger public-jobs initiative, the CCC helped to reduce the unemployment rate from nearly 17 percent to under 10 percent. National service programs provide project-based training and work, as well as valuable work experience. Many national service programs pay living allowances and offer other benefits and supports. By expanding its capacity to respond to this crisis, AmeriCorps, the largest federal national-service program, could address workforce needs by filling staffing shortages in recovery efforts.
A positive case study from the Great Recession concerns subsidized employment programs. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Fund (TANF EF) helped 39 states place over 260,000 people in jobs within two years. In addition to subsidizing wages, many states used TANF EF funds to provide supportive services, such as child care, which helped workers keep jobs. By combining supportive services with short-term employment, so-called transitional jobs models create opportunities for individuals experiencing chronic under-employment to develop a work history. At the same time, they encourage private-sector employers to hire jobseekers that face historic discrimination. A bold, national transitional jobs initiative is the first step to an equitable recovery.
Payments and access to short-term training is not enough for our nation’s post-pandemic workforce. The distant and recent past teaches that a combination of training, paid work experience, a clear connection to jobs with family-sustaining wages, as well as strong worker protections, are needed to strengthen the employment stability and earning of workers.
Any further COVID-19 legislation must, above all, lay out a new vision for what it means to be a worker in America. The proverb puts it in stark terms: Where there is no vision, the people perish. Sadly, we have been living this proverb, but we can act now to set a vision rather than envisioning a set of piecemeal plans.
Thomas Showalter is executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition. He previously served as staff of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee for five years.