COVID-19 in Pa.: At a time of crisis, protecting workers is All-American | Opinion

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By Jonathan C. Rothermel

In times of crisis, Americans look after each other. They check in on their neighbors. They donate items, money, or their time to help others. They pray for one another. They make collective sacrifices. And we’re seeing examples of that today.

Posts on social media express support, encouragement, advice, and even humor as Americans adapt to the inconveniences waged by COVID-19. For the most part, Americans are heeding the advice of local and state authorities.

But as the number of infected people rises daily, not everyone can hunker down and self-isolate. Imagine how much worse off Americans would be today without grocery store clerks, warehouse supply workers, police officers and first responders, delivery drivers, lab technicians, nurses and doctors, and other “essential” employees who put themselves (and their families) at a higher risk for acquiring or spreading COVID-19?

Vulnerable workers like these deserve to be protected. In addition, American workers who are forced to stay home are facing economic hardships. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, 58.5 percent of all wage and salary workers (16 and older) were paid at hourly rates. Not all non-essential workers have the option to work from home.

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The impending economic tsunami that is likely to affect the American economy in the wake of COVID-19 will be particularly painful for working class families.

The passage of the CARES Act, the coronavirus relief package, will be helpful, but it is only a Band-Aid.  Isn’t it time for the United States to put in place longer-term benefits and protections for the American worker, such as paid maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave and vacation, and guaranteed access to affordable healthcare?

The United States is the only country among 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not mandate by law any paid leave for new parents. The Family Medical Leave Act only allows a parent to take up to three months off – with no guarantee of pay – under certain family or medical related reasons.

The importance of family relationships is being underscored today by shelter-in place orders across the country as families comfort and support each other. Several recent articles have surfaced about the inherent benefits of fathers staying home and spending more time with their kids. Offering paid maternity and paternity leave epitomizes core traditional family values.

Only a handful of U.S. states mandate employers to provide sick leave.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 73 percent of workers in the private sector have paid sick leave. However, this percentage drastically decreases for lower-wage workers and workers in the hotel and food services industries. The potential danger of workers choosing between losing pay versus coming to work sick are more evident today than ever.

Sadly, the United States is also one of the only rich, advanced industrialized counties to not guarantee paid vacation or paid holidays for workers.

Just over half of Americans get health insurance through employer-sponsored health care programs. While Medicaid covers some low-income workers, ten years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, there are still a significant number of Americans who do not have health insurance. According to the U.S. Census, 8.5 percent, or 27.5 million, Americans did not have health insurance at any point during the year in 2018, and this number was expected to rise under the Trump administration.

Historically, Americans have acted to protect the vulnerable among them in the wake of a crisis. Following the Great Depression, landmark legislation like the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to protect senior citizens from poverty and children from working.

During World War II, Americans rationed vital resources for the war effort abroad and the GI Bill was passed to help returning veterans go to college in appreciation for the sacrifices they made to the country. During the turbulent 1960s, the government passed legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid in its effort to combat poverty across the country.

Today, social security, child labor laws, GI bill educational benefits, Medicare, and even Medicaid are sacrosanct government programs.

All American workers deserve paid maternity and paternity leave, paid sick and vacation leave, and guaranteed access to affordable healthcare.

Instead, these issues are politicized and stained red by their association with socialism or worse – communism.  But why should protecting working class families be antithetical to patriotism or even conservative values?  Why should these issues be exclusively “Democratic” issues? Isn’t it time to shatter the political molds that have been forged in the past?

If there are two things that Americans are becoming painfully aware of during this pandemic, it is the importance of family and the importance of the American worker.

After the defeat of COVID-19, Americans should shatter the familiar partisan platitudes associated with the aforementioned issues and work in a bipartisan manner to protect workers and enhance family relationships.

Jonathan C. Rothermel is a political science professor at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.