September 3, 2021
Labor Day honors and recognizes the great contributions of the American worker and the role the labor movement has played in shaping workplace rights in our country. At the time of its inception in the late 1800s, American factory workers toiled for an average of 60 hours a week. They fought for and ultimately won reduced hours and better working conditions. Labor Day was meant to spread appreciation for these workers’ hard labor and has inspired similar types of commemoration internationally.
Sadly, we have lost sight of the original meaning of this special day. And on this Labor Day in 2021, the commemoration of American workers feels particularly hollow.
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the American workforce. Since mid-2020, Americans who lost their jobs through no fault of their own have been provided various income supplements and eviction protections through the CARES Act and other relief efforts. But as soon as the country began to stabilize economically, politicized rhetoric began to proliferate, creating a false narrative that those same unemployed Americans now needed a figurative “swift kick” to return to work.
And so, over half of the states began to opt out prematurely from the crucial protections afforded to unemployed American workers through the American Rescue Plan. These protections, which were already due to expire on September 6, 2021, include the $300 supplement that helped out-of-work Americans supplement their benefits and recover some lost wages. They also include the extension of aid to workers who exhausted their state benefits period of 26 weeks, as well as coverage of gig workers, freelance workers who would not have qualified otherwise for traditional state unemployment benefits.
Decisions to end these worker supports are predicated around assumptions that things are returning to “normal.” But simply put, these assumptions are not correct.
Despite promising signs of growth, the country’s long-term economic recovery is estimated to take several years, not months. The surge of the Delta variant has thwarted our efforts to fully reopen our businesses, our public accommodations, and our schools. Transmission rates have risen exponentially as many Americans are reticent to vaccinate or resist mandates to wear masks.
The highly touted “labor shortage” is, in fact, a mischaracterization, as it mistakenly suggests that all of the jobs that have opened up in the past few months evenly match the skills sets of workers who are currently in danger of exhausting their unemployment benefits. So long as a significant portion of the populace refuses to vaccinate, the Delta variant will continue to proliferate, as will newer variants for which current available vaccines may not provide ample protection. And with the concurrent expiration of the federal eviction moratorium, struggling families can no longer rely upon enhanced or expanded unemployment benefits to help them make up the shortfall in covering rental or mortgage expenses.
This is the lamentable crisis facing the average American worker this Labor Day. And the irony could not be any more glaring.
Workers and their advocates have long rallied against the difficult conditions under which so many Americans have toiled for generations. They have lamented exceptionally low salaries for restaurant and hospitality workers. They have fought zealously for the rights of gig workers, over 57 million strong, who do not have the same benefits or protections derived from a traditional workplace. And they have raised our consciousness about the plight of domestic workers, including home health care providers, nannies, and housekeepers.
During the pandemic, these very people were lauded as “essential workers.” Their work enabled millions of Americans to work comfortably from home and in relative safety during the height of the lockdowns. Yet these heroes were the very same workers who had always been supporting our country while toiling anonymously for paltry pay, limited health care, little to no paid time off, limited options for childcare assistance, and precarious workplace conditions. Moreover, Black people and other people of color were overrepresented in these “essential” jobs and suffered disproportionate rates of illness and death. Nevertheless, as the pandemic has raged on, our collective sympathy for their “sacrifice” has quickly waned.
To truly honor workers we must treat them with dignity and respect. We honor our workers by paying them wages sufficient to sustain themselves and their families. We honor them by ensuring that their workplaces are safe. We honor them by ensuring they have access to suitable health care coverage. And we honor them by providing ample paid time off to recuperate in case they fall ill.
As we take this special day to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements and contributions of American workers, we must acknowledge the myriad old and new challenges facing workers, especially in the wake of the pandemic. And ultimately, we must continue to fight for inclusive policy solutions that not only reduce poverty but improve the health and well-being of all Americans. Anything short of that is an affront to the sacrifices made by the very workers for whom this holiday was enacted and who have been and remain the backbone of our society.