OPINION: Sacrificing working people for political gain

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By LIZ WATSON

The United States is currently seeing the most coronavirus infections since the pandemic began. Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned that the U.S. could soon reach 100,000 new cases each day. And across every age group, people of color, especially Black and Native people, are being infected and dying at much higher rates.

Cases are surging because we’re reopening without adequate public health protections. At least 17 states that had begun reopening are shutting back down. It’s no coincidence that the same states that were the last to shut down and the first to reopen are experiencing the most alarming spikes.

The U.S. has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other nation, largely due to a series of blunders in the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis. In response to rising cases, President Trump encouraged his team to “slow down the testing” because the numbers made him look bad.

The Trump Administration has done shockingly little to contain this crisis. Public health experts have laid out a clear plan for getting Americans back to work safely that includes mass testing, contact tracing, and isolation, as well as putting an enforceable OSHA standard in place to protect people at work. President Trump has followed exactly none of these recommendations.

A DEATH SENTENCE
Reopening without mass testing and enforceable safety rules on the job will be a death sentence for countless Americans.

The naked political calculus behind reopening without first protecting our health is chilling. If people go back to work and life looks more “normal” by November, President Trump and the Republicans wager they have a better chance at winning the election. And they’re willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of American lives to achieve that outcome.

Even after the economy reopens, many white-collar and wealthier workers will likely continue to telework for months to come. Meanwhile, health care, manufacturing, food service, childcare, and many other hourly workers will go back to jobs that simply can’t be done from home. In polling from late March, 56 percent of high-income workers reported working from home, as compared to only 25 percent of low-income workers. Low-income workers —
who are disproportionately Black, Brown, — will go back because they need a paycheck.

CORPORATE IMMUNITY
Instead of protecting people, Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy are working hard to impose corporate immunity—ensuring negligent employers can’t be held responsible for failing to follow basic safety rules. They want to weaken corporations’ incentives to keep workers safe on the job at exactly the time when workers need these protections the most.

Leading progressive Democrats Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Andy Levin have proposed a “containment corps” to immediately ramp up the mass contact tracing that public health experts insist will save the lives of millions of Americans.

House Democrats passed an enforceable OSHA standard requiring employers to work with their employees to develop appropriate safety standards in each workplace, not let employers shirk responsibility in the now-stalled Heroes Act.

LEAVING STATES ON THEIR OWN
President Trump’s so-called plan to reopen the economy tells states they are on their own. In contrast, Democratic Congressman Raskin’s Reopen America Act asks HHS to determine that states’ reopening plans take appropriate measures to safeguard public health and then supply states with the funding necessary to implement those plans. This is what it looks like when our government invests in people, rather than treating the most vulnerable among us as disposable.

And rather than threatening to kick people off unemployment insurance if they refuse to return to work before it’s safe, as some states are now doing, we need solutions like Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s Paycheck Recovery Act, that allow workers to keep their paychecks and keep their health care benefits until they can safely go back – lessening the economic pressure on working families and buying time to put much-needed safety measures in place.

We need solutions like Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan’s proposed expansion of unemployment compensation to employees who go back to work on a reduced schedule, making it easier to preserve social distancing on the job, solutions like Senator Warren and Congressman Khanna’s proposal to increase pay and provide safety and health protections for essential workers, and solutions like continued long-term unemployment insurance.

ALL THE RISKS, NO REWARD
Getting back to normal as fast as possible must not be the goal. “Normal” is an economy in which working people take all the risks but get no reward. “Normal” is an economy in which workers of color consistently finish last. We need leaders who are committed to building a better, more resilient and just nation out of the ashes of this crisis. We can start with the simple premise that no matter what we look like, where we live, or what’s in our wallets, none of us are disposable.

(Liz Watson is the executive director of the Progressive Caucus Action Fund. She previously served as the Labor Policy Director and Chief Labor Counsel on the House Education and Labor Committee, executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and director of the Workplace Justice Program at the National Women’s Law Center.)

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