NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 04: 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. Experts say Pennsylvania will need an army of contact tracers to prevent new infections as retailers and other businesses in the state begin to reopen. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
By Art Haywood
While small businesses owners and politicians have demanded that the state reopen quickly, the reopen health risks are largely on black, brown, and white low-paid workers. Essential grocery store, restaurant, food service public transit workers stayed on the job to save us as many of us stayed at home, even worked from home.
I have heard from the business owners that some are now closing altogether. All see that the losses are great because of the mandatory closures. Business owners are struggling with limited financial relief and Paycheck Protection (PPP) loans that might not be forgiven.
We all want to reopen the state. But reopening businesses too soon will expose low-paid retail, and public-facing workers to the coronavirus. These workers are not able to work from home.
Who works from home? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 29 percent of American workers could work from home.
About 60 percent of people working from home hold “white collar jobs”. Less than 10 percent of workers said they could work from home when their jobs were described as service industry or physical labor jobs. There are also racial disparities in who can work from home, with 37 percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites saying that they have the ability to work from home, while only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics can say the same.
Many neighbors are still afraid to return to the workplace. They fear that supply scarcity will mean that their workplaces do not have personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to keep them and others safe. Yes, testing for COVID-19 has increased in Pennsylvania, but there is still no vaccine or standardized treatment available to fight the virus.
Workers who will be forced to return to reopened businesses are afraid of being of being fired and denied unemployment compensation because they fear the deadly virus in the workplace.
Retail, grocery and restaurant workers may earn as little as $2.83 per hour or $7.25 per hour in Pennsylvania. Is it worth the risk? Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have introduced legislation to provide protections, even as workers head back to their jobs – but those efforts have been blocked again and again.
Opening businesses and counties to meet the demands of business and our economy should not be done at the expense of black, brown and white, low-paid workers. We need a just recovery that includes higher pay for low- paid essential workers and protections that benefit all of us.
State Sen. Art Haywood, a Democrat, represents the 4th Senate District, which includes parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. He writes from Harrisburg.
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