‘New normal’ gives opportunity to create a better normal | Opinion

NUTLEY, NJ - FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on February 28, 2020 in Nutley, New Jersey. The facility develops novel therapies for some of the worlds most difficult diseases. At least 53 countries have reported cases of infection. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

By Frank Dermody, Jordan Harris, and Matt Bradford

In these unprecedented times we have to look at issues in unprecedented ways. Businesses and nonprofits, facing steep odds, are finding creative and innovative methods to stay afloat and provide services to those who need them.

Our frontline workers – first responders, health care providers, transit and essential retail employees – are risking their lives every day to keep us safe and comfortable.

This virus has had a disparate impact on communities of color and poorer Pennsylvanians who are statistically more likely to hold service jobs that do not allow for telecommuting and other social distancing measures, while at the same time failing to provide basic sick leave.

We cannot thank them enough and the least we can do in return is to ensure that when the world returns to “normal,” it’s a better normal than what we used to have.

As we begin to reopen the economy, first and foremost, we must do so in a way that doesn’t harm workers. Pennsylvanians want to work, but not in unsafe conditions.

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No business sets out to harm their employees, but without enough masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment — as well as access to paid sick leave — there is no real way to ensure worker safety. That also means there is no way to ensure we continue bending the curve of this deadly virus. We will fight for universal, basic and commonsense protections for workers, which in the end, protects everyone.

This pandemic has revealed so much about our values as a society and what we consider essential. Many of our most essential employees are hourly workers, the majority of whom are women and people of color.

How can we justify paying a non-living wage to those who are keeping grocery store shelves stocked, disinfecting hospitals and schools, or taking care of our youngest children in daycares and our elderly family members in nursing homes?

We’ve been fighting to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage – currently just $7.25 per hour – and to provide paid sick leave for years now. Our workers deserve this.

Over the last few weeks, House Democrats proudly voted to extend COVID-19-related protections under the Heart and Lung Act to our traditional first responders.

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However, House Republicans refused to extend these same benefits to all essential workers during this pandemic, including those on the front line with the highest levels of exposure – nurses, aides, grocery store clerks, EMS drivers and many more. These jobs are disproportionately held by women and people of color who earn lower hourly wages. The inequities existed long before now, but this pandemic exacerbates and exposes them in ways we can no longer ignore.

The closures of schools through the end of the school year was no doubt the right decision by Gov. Tom Wolf in the name of safety, but it left schools struggling to ensure continuity of education through remote learning. It revealed, again, just how inequitable our education system truly is, with local school districts already relying far too heavily on local property taxes to pay the bills.

These inequities are even more evident during the stay-at-home order as wealthy school districts provide iPads and hotspots to every student, while poorer districts scramble to apply for grants in the hopes of purchasing basic learning materials and internet access.

With local revenues taking a huge hit in this pandemic, now more than ever we must increase the state’s commitment to public schools and provide quality education for all Pennsylvania kids, regardless of their ZIP code.

This pandemic is causing a long-term hit to our economy, but it’s also a chance to reset our expectations about what our new normal could bring – fair wages for essential workers, better health and safety in public spaces, and a more equitable way of funding our schools.

These are the values we have been fighting for as your elected officials for years, and we promise to continue on that path with renewed strength and, we predict, unprecedented support.

State Rep. Frank Dermody, of Allegheny County, is the Democratic floor leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Rep. Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, is House Democratic Whip. Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, is the ranking Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee. They write from Harrisburg.