Six Things Lawmakers Can Do to Help Low-Wage Workers Now

Millions of workers are struggling in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

Millions of workers are struggling in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The unemployment rate has swollen to 11.1 percent, with more than 50 million people claiming jobless benefits since March, the U.S economy faces its greatest downturn since the Great Depression.  

Low-wage workers, many of whom do essential work, have been especially hard hit. While relatively higher paid professional and other office workers (including Shriver Center employees) are able to work from the safety of their homes, low-paid grocery store, factory, janitorial/cleaning workers, and domestic workers must report to work. These frontline workers frequently face unsafe working conditions and often lack access to unemployment insurance. And these workers are among the first to lose their jobs; in March, 40 percent of workers making less than $40,000 per year lost their jobs.   

The economic collapse is hitting people of color the hardest. Black and Brown workers are over-represented in jobs vulnerable to layoffs, and they have fewer assets available to withstand an emergency.  As a result, these workers must keep going to work, and are disproportionately contracting and dying from COVID-19

The federal government has already taken steps to provide people in need with modest help.  Many Americans received one-time economic stimulus checks, and Congress provided federal funds to supplement state unemployment payments while also adding additional weeks of eligibility and temporarily expanding the program to include gig workers, independent contractors, and other workers traditionally unable to receive unemployment insurance.  Unfortunately, these actions have not been enough, both because they have been too small and because people have been left out, including immigrants (and U.S. citizens married to them), many students, and adults claimed as dependents.  

The economy should work for everyone, not just a privileged fewHere are 6 steps the federal and Illinois governments must take urgently to ensure that workers get the help they need today. 

  1. People who are unemployed or underemployed need money to pay their bills.  The simplest way to give it to them is with additional direct cash payments.  We call on Congress to ensure that future payments are bigger, regular, lasting, and include everyone. 
  1. Everyone deserves enough food to lead a healthy life. Yet over 20% of all households, and over 40% of households led by mothers with children under 12, face hunger.  This comes as farmers have been forced to destroy food they are unable to sell.  Congress must increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent and allow states the ongoing regulatory flexibility to get hungry people enrolled quickly. 
  1. States urgently need fiscal relief.  The State of Illinois passed a strong equity budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1.  However, the budget was only balanced by by borrowing $5 billion from the federal government.  Without fiscal relief from Congress to eliminate that gap, the state will have no choice but to make sharp midyear budget cuts to programs that protect the lowest income Illinoisans.  We cannot allow this to occur.  Congress must support state governments in their time of need. 
  1. At all levels of Illinois government—state, county, and local—we spend too much money on over-incarcerating and over-policing people in Black and Brown communities, instead of investing in those communities, resulting in shockingly high unemployment ratesWe need to use a divest/reinvestment model for all future budgeting, to ensure that communities suffering from high unemployment receive targeted investment in employment and other social services. 
  1. Frontline workers, including domestic workers, grocery store workers, nursing home workers, homeless shelter workers, and temporary workers in factories, deserve safe working conditions. We must provide all of these workers with hazard pay and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and protect them from being terminated or otherwise retaliated against for expressing concerns about workplace safety to their employer or a government agency. The Illinois General Assembly must also pass, and the Governor must sign, the Healthy Workplace Act, which would allow Illinois workers to accrue and use paid sick leave
  1. Unemployed workers’ claims must be processed and paid quickly. The Illinois Department of Economic Security (IDES) has faced extreme challenges in processing unemployment claims in a timely and accurate manner. Those problems have included a dysfunctional website and call center, unclear communications to claimants, lack of sufficient language access, and problems loading payments on debit cards. IDES must swiftly fix these issues and ensure that people receive the assistance to which they are entitled. 

More than ever, we need to work toward systemic change that ensures healthcare, paid sick time, access to secure housing, and support for the justice-involved in Illinois and across the country. Join us by signing on to support economic and racial justice in the face of COVID-19.  

About the Author

Jeremy Rosen
Jeremy Rosen
Jeremy Rosen
Director of Economic Justice


More Information

Systemic inequities and the legacy of structural racism make it harder for low-income people and people of color to achieve financial stability.

Fiscal policies should ensure that all communities can thrive.

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