Empower Workers Now

April 24, 2020

Give frontline workers a voice in our nation’s pandemic response.

The Roosevelt Rundown is an email series featuring the Roosevelt Institute’s top stories of the week.

Building Worker Voice on the Frontlines

The dual crises of COVID-19 continued to ravage the nation this week, with deaths now surpassing 50,000 and unemployment claims topping 26 million. As the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz estimates, the job losses of the last five weeks likely translate into an 18.3 percent unemployment rate. With frontline workers still on the job, and as parts of the economy begin to reopen, guaranteeing worker safety is a matter of public safety. A new report by Roosevelt’s Suzanne Kahn and Brishen Rogers and Clean Slate for Worker Power’s Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs outlines how Congress can do it: by establishing systems for sector-wide consultation, creating more transparent and democratic workplaces, and protecting workers against retaliation. “By giving workers a voice, we can ensure that the pandemic response happens with them and not to them.” Read on.

  • Rewriting the rules: As a Fast Company exclusive explains, the report lays the foundation for longer-term input on wages, benefits, and working conditions. “The medical folks need to take care of stopping the virus, but policymakers need to get the structural problems with the economy under control,” Block says in the piece. “Maybe what we’re going through now will open up some imaginations.” Next week, a new report from Roosevelt Fellow Alex Hertel-Fernandez surveys the scene of worker power, access to information, and workplace rights, and proposes a roadmap for reform.
  • The effects on young people: “I’ve always considered myself financially responsible, but I lost my restaurant job because of COVID-19, and now the savings I set aside to pay off my loans are going towards rent, groceries, and bills,” Roosevelt Network organizer and Northeastern University senior Maggie King tells the Washington Post. “Frustration has been rising in our generation for awhile, and this crisis is making things worse.” As Kahn tells WaPo, “I think that the problem is even in the best-case scenario where you get a job—if you’re entering the job market at this moment, it’ll take 20 or 40 years for your wages to be where they’d be if you entered the job market at a better moment.”

Why the Government Should Be Guaranteeing Paychecks

Today, President Trump signed a fourth relief package that allocates an additional $321 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program created by the CARES Act. But as Roosevelt President & CEO Felicia Wong, Economic Policy Institute President Thea Lee, and Congressional Progressive Caucus Center Executive Director Liz Watson argue in a Time op-ed, that program simply isn’t working. “Businesses, and nonprofits, can only apply for these loans through a limited number of Small Business Administration–approved banks. The process itself is slow, confusing, and extremely discouraging,” they write. “A simpler, more direct form of a grant can provide sufficient support to businesses that maintain payroll. This could augment other forms of support—such as unemployment insurance—by ensuring a range of options for employers and their employees. Government could provide direct paycheck support through a number of avenues, including by working through payroll companies or making payroll transfers through the Department of Treasury or IRS.” Read on, and read more from Wong in Vox’s “The Legacy of the Pandemic: 11 Ways It Will Change the Way We Live.”

  • Another angle: “In this crisis period, fintechs are likely an important lifeline for many small businesses, and some fintech companies have been granted access to the Paycheck Protection Program,” Roosevelt Fellow Lenore Palladino writes for Barron’s. “Ease of use and speed can be an asset. To stay alive, small-business owners are going to be looking past the PPP just to make it to the other side of the crisis. But the rules of the game should ensure that the loans are offered in a way that’s comparable to traditional bank loans so that small-business owners who are locked out of federal programs do not end up saddled with unpayable debt down the road. That would only deepen the inequities of the current economic crisis.” Read on.

FedAccounts Would Provide Relief

As a new Roosevelt fact sheet explains, response efforts that ignore underlying structural inequalities will only exacerbate them: “One of the clearest examples is the lack of access to bank accounts. Congress authorized $1,200 in relief checks to millions of Americans, yet whole segments of the population—indeed, those most in need of this urgent relief—will likely wait six to eight weeks for these funds because they lack access to a functioning bank account . . .  Fortunately, Congress can fix this immediate problem, while simultaneously addressing structural flaws in our financial system, by directing the Federal Reserve (the Fed) to offer bank accounts to all US residents.” Learn more.

Using OIRA for Progressive Regulation

Times like these require out-of-the-box thinking: Roosevelt Director of Governance Studies Todd Tucker and Rajesh D. Nayak—a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School—have ideas. “With strong leadership and additional resources, a reimagined OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] can serve to push agencies to think more creatively and proactively. Such an OIRA could make the difference between years of frustration and wasted opportunity, and the advancement of a proactive agenda for workers’ rights, climate justice, consumer protections, access to health care, and even an industrial policy that will create new jobs to support our nation through our economic rebuilding effort and beyond,” they write for the American Prospect. Sharon Block agrees: “No one should be naïve about the challenge involved in charting a new course for OIRA. But I believe that Tucker and Nayak have laid out a path to make the most of OIRA’s potential for putting its expertise in service of a progressive agenda. The pandemic has made that path more critical than ever.” Read on.

What We’re Reading

The Cold Calculations Governors Will Have to Make Before Reopening – New York Times

Top Economist: US Coronavirus Response Is Like ‘Third World’ Country – The Guardian

We Are Living in a Failed State – The Atlantic

10 Ways Trump Could Use His Power for Good, Not Evil – The Nation 

There’s One Guy Policing Trump’s $2.2 Trillion Bailout, and He’s Working from Home on a Laptop – Vice

The Case for a Massive Federal Aid Package for States and Cities – Vox

The Urgent Need for Civil Justice Reform – Boston Review

9 Ways Coronavirus Could Reshape American Higher Education – The Week