Both the public health and economic fallouts from the COVID-19 outbreak are expected to be massive. Making certain our essential workforce is protected through expanded paid leave, ensured food and housing assistance, enhanced unemployment insurance, cash payments and other targeted measures is decisively the blunt force needed for short-term countercyclical change. As the country mobilizes to beat the public health crisis, we must do even more to prepare our workforce against the economic devastation to come.
Even before the outbreak, job quality and working conditions were awful for low-wage workers. Now these workers are on the frontline of this crisis or they have been laid off as their employers are closing shop. The crisis has laid bare long-standing structural problems that have generated precarious employment conditions and job insecurity in the American labor market. The coronavirus recession only magnifies economic inequality by how women, people of color and immigrants are disproportionately impacted and why the need to strengthen protections for our workforce is urgent.
Moving forward, large-scale federal jobs programs and workforce responses that aim to change existing employment structures are necessary to counter the magnitude of growing coronavirus cases and snowballing job losses. Despite enacting targeted economic relief for small and mid-sized employers and bailouts for large corporations, post-COVID-19 unemployment is estimated to reach 30 percent or higher, and unemployment claims are already spiking to unprecedented levels. As layoffs accelerate, what’s needed is a comprehensive response. Guided by the principle that everyone who wants to work should have access to a quality job, subsidized employment is a proven workforce strategy for people looking for work.
Looking back, the 2009 Recovery Act responded to an extraordinarily severe loss of jobs caused by the Great Recession. States were given resources to implement subsidized employment strategies quickly and cost-effectively, putting large numbers of people into jobs who would not otherwise be working. These strategies were popular with workers and employers alike. In addition, several studies of transitional jobs programs — which combine subsidized employment with training and support services and are targeted to people who face more barriers to employment — showed that chronically unemployed individuals are eager to work when their barriers to employment are addressed.
While the subsidized jobs programs made a significant impact on increasing employment during the last recession, these efforts only met a fraction of the overall need at that time. As Congress contemplates its next set of relief measures, federally funded workforce responses should be proportionally larger than what was earmarked for the last recession. These responses must also be designed to ensure equitable outcomes in employment for communities disproportionately affected by both the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout. That means federal interventions to boost employment must aim to narrow jobs deficits while also addressing systems reforms designed to expand workforce consumer protections.
To implement effective subsidized jobs initiatives, states need to be equipped to employ subsidized workers directly in public service and infrastructure jobs in addition to private sector employment. Additionally, any plans to beef up existing workforce programming should set aside funding for transitional jobs programs targeted to the workers most in need to help ensure that subsidized employment is available to chronically unemployed individuals who have difficulty accessing work even in a good economy.
Specifically, these workforce response activities should include benchmark and reporting data for racial and gender equity in employment outcomes as well as incorporate a dashboard of multiple indicators to measure job quality. Policymakers should also apply guardrails to ensure that the availability of subsidized employment is not used to deny eligible people support that help them afford basics like food and medicine, or to compel people to accept subsidized employment as a condition of receiving basic support.
Perhaps surviving this economic crisis shouldn’t have demanded worker protections as an emergency response. The reality moving forward is that we need workforce responses that drive equitable access to labor markets over the long-term. Let’s not look back on this extraordinary moment as the time we turned our back on low-wage workers yet again.
Melissa Young is a senior director in the research and policy division at the Heartland Alliance. Chris Warland is an associate director for national initiatives at the Heartland Alliance. Livia Lam is a senior fellow and director of workforce development policy at the Center for American Progress.
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