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‘It is a heavy load to carry’: New Brookings report recommends pay hikes, labor reforms for essential workers | Friday Morning Coffee

March 19, 2021 7:22 am

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 4, 2020: A man wearing a protective mask makes a purchase from a cashier wearing a protective mask as the coronavirus continues to spread on April 04, 2020 in New York City. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 180 countries and territories across the world, claiming over 40,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If there’s been one enduring image during our pandemic year, it’s been that of the essential worker: The nursing home worker, the grocery store cashier, the postal service workers, and countless hundreds of thousands of others who kept the wheels of the economy turning, often at great personal risk, for shockingly low wages.

new report by scholars at the Brookings Institution attempts to quantify the contributions of those frontline workers, reaching a critical, bottom line conclusion: We need to do more than just call these workers essential, we have to treat them that way by paying them more, and lifting the barriers, such as structural racism, that prevent them from getting ahead.

“It is long past time that we treat essential workers as truly essential,” the report’s authors, Molly Kinder, a fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, and Laura Stateler, a research assistant in the same program, write. “Lawmakers in Washington and around the country have the opportunity to turn their policy rhetoric into real change. The recommendations in this report lay out how federal, state, and local policymakers can — finally — give essential workers what they have always deserved: the dignity of a living wage, lifesaving protections, and power in their workplaces.”

Brookings rolled out the findings included in the report during a webinar on Thursday that included, among others, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Barbara Coleman, a certified nursing assistant and labor leader from Scranton speaks during a conference call on Monday, 2/21/21 (Screen Capture)

The  truth of the economic challenges these workers are facing is right there in the data. Using an essential worker classification data set crafted by Brookings, and 2018 data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor StatisticsKinder and Stateler found that 23.3 million essential workers were in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 an hour, “comprising approximately half (47 percent) of all workers in these low-wage occupations.”

In addition, Black and brown workers are overrepresented “among essential workers in low-wage frontline positions that pose health risks,” the two scholars found.

(Source: The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program)

One such essential employee, Tony Powell, works as a unit secretary at a hospital in the southeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood where he grew up. He shared his experience of being a frontline worker during the pandemic.

“It is a heavy load to carry,” Powell told Kinder and Stateler, according to the report. “Sometimes it feels like you are carrying a car up a mountain. You can’t put yourself in a bubble when you see people around you dying. I see people I went to school with and grew up with. They’ll come in and just like that, they are gone. It is really mind blowing that you can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

Gov. Tom Wolf gives the 2021-2022 budget address virtually (Capital-Star Screen Capture).

During his appearance on the webinar, Wolf highlighted a $50 million hazard pay grant program that allowed 639 employers across the state to give more than 41,000 workers a $3-per-hour pay hike.

“As the pandemic took hold in Pennsylvania, it quickly became clear that the title ‘essential worker’ goes far beyond our health care professionals and first responders. They are grocery store clerks, food distributors, security guards, public transit workers, janitors, and more, and they are essential to our daily lives,” Wolf said in a statement.

The Democratic governor also made another pitch for his long-sought goal of raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2025. The state’s minimum, which is tied to the federal minimum, hasn’t been boosted since 2009. Republicans who control the General Assembly have said they’re not interested, but progressives have kept up the fight.

“The pandemic has only increased the urgency to ensure workers are paid a living wage,” Wolf said in a statement. “This path to $15 would put $4.4 billion in the pockets of Pennsylvania workers in the first year, an important boost for our state and local economies as we recover from the pandemic.”

(Source:The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program)

In addition to hiking the federal minimum wage to $15, as has been proposed by congressional Democrats and the Biden administration, the Brookings report also makes several other policy recommendations.

They include:

  • Making the expanded EITC and Child Tax Credit permanent: The COVID-19 relief bill recently passed by Congress, and signed by President Joe Biden, currently includes only a year-long expansion of the two programs, which are aimed at lifting families and children out of poverty.
  • Encouraging state and local governments to leverage federal funds for temporary hazard pay: As noted above, Pennsylvania leveraged money from the first round of CARES Act funding for just that purpose. The new American Rescue Act includes $350 billion in state and local assistance.
  • Accelerating efforts to enforce worker safety standards and protect whistleblowers: The report calls on the Biden administration to “accelerate efforts to investigate workplace safety concerns.”
  • Prioritizing essential workers for vaccine access: Officials in Pennsylvania announced such a move recently as they rolled out priority vaccine groups for police and firemen, as well as grocery store workers and food processing workers.
  • Expanding paid leave.
  • Strengthening labor laws to enable more worker representation and collective bargaining.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, dozens of frontline essential workers have shared with us their pandemic experiences, the challenges they are confronting, and their hopes for the future,” Kinder and Stateler wrote. “Many said that while it should not have taken a pandemic to make their work visible and valued, it has shown that change is urgently needed.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
As killings surge, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has few solutions, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

The pipeline that provides natural gas to a massive petrochemical plant now under construction in Beaver County is being investigated for possible corrosion, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Fletcher McClellan says he’s been pleasantly surprised to learn the new Biden administration is not simply a third Obama term. And a Grinnell College scholar takes another crack at debunking the tired myth that expanded voting leads to fraud.

En la Estrella-CapitalWolf nomina a la abogada veterana Suzanne Estrella para dirigir la Oficina del defensor de víctimas. Y restaurantes y gimnasios pueden ir al 75 por ciento de capacidad a partir del 4 de abril, dice Wolf.

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

Elsewhere.
Philadelphia school officials got an earful during a marathon meeting on Thursday, the Inquirer reports.
Former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine is being pressed for nursing home data as her confirmation vote to a Biden administration post closes in, SpotlightPA reports (via the Tribune-Review).
Pittsburgh’s Asian-American community fears harassment and violence, the Post-Gazette reports.
A Harrisburg sculptor explains how art saved him during the pandemic (paywall).
Nearly 100,000 Lancaster County residents have been at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19LancasterOnline reports.
The Morning Call profiles the new look PPL, a ‘a high-growth, low-risk energy company focused on the U.S. market.’

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Advocates explain to WHYY-FM why Asian-Americans are reluctant to report harassment and abuse. 
Pa. families will get money to make up for lost school meals – but that won’t happen for weeksWESA-FM reports.
Second dose vaccines are being delivered to a clinic at the Uniontown Mallthe Herald-Standard reports.
U.S. Postal Service investigators have found no evidence of mail fraud in an incident in Erie County, GoErie reports (paywall).
University of Virginia political sage Larry Sabato says the 2022 Pa. governor’s race is a toss-up — for now, PoliticsPA reports.
After months of glitches and delays, states are debating improvements to their unemployment systems, Stateline.org reports.
Reason.com profiles the ‘toxic populism’ of U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
The U.S. House has passed a reform bill to help the Dreamers, Roll Call 
reports.

What Goes On.
The House Democratic Policy Committee meets at 12:30 p.m. in G50 Irvis.

WolfWatch.
Gov. Tom Wolf
 heads to Bucks County today for a 12 p.m. stop at the Bucks County Intermediate Unit in Doylestown, where he’ll talk all things vaccine.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Kat Breitmayer with House Democrats. And advance best wishes go out to reader Patricia Cippolla, of Carlisle, who celebrates on Saturday. Congratulations and enjoy your days, friends.

Dept. of Gastonomy.
A new bakery and a Victorian concept bar are just two of the new venues coming to the Steel City, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

Le jardin c’est moi.
With some spring-y weather on the way, PennLive has your backyard to-do list this weekend.

Heavy Rotation.
We’ll go out this week with a bit of traditional indie. Here’s ‘I Would Find You,’ from Oceantor. That four-on-the floor drum and bass opening is all we need this morning.

Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina dropped a 3-2 decision to Columbus 
in overtime on Thursday night. This better not be a sign.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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