COVID-19 is here, and it’s going to thump American workers. Last week’s market meltdown reflects uncertainty and panic among investors, but workers have even more reason to be worried about their health, incomes and long-term employment.
We’ve known since the Great Depression that significant government intervention during an economic crisis can stop a disastrous downward spiral. But, stimulus packages vary widely in their intended targets and effects. What are governments doing specifically for workers?
In the U.S. the challenges are unique: 57 percent of the workforce are paid hourly or are self-employed. In the past, many of these hourly workers would have been in stable manufacturing jobs with decent benefits. However, in the past 30 years we have seen a decline in manufacturing employment and a corresponding increase in hospitality and service jobs which often feature irregular and part-time hours with few benefits, according to Business Insider.
People in these low-wage, unstable jobs seldom have paid sick leave. They’re also the most likely to lose their jobs when no one is allowed to go out to restaurants, bars, hotels, cafes or concerts for an extended period of time.
That means a stimulus package aimed at workers needs to address sick leave, income support and supplemental benefits as well as the needs of the newly unemployed.
Last weekend, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill to: provide temporary paid sick and family leave; direct additional funding toward health, food security and unemployment programs; and make coronavirus testing free, the Washington Post reported..
No sooner had that $100 billion package passed the Senate than leaders from both sides immediately got to work on an expanded third package. The focus is small business, individuals, hospitals and health care centers. This time with an expected price tag of $1 trillion! (Or nudging $2 trillion, if you listen to Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow.) Either figure is big money by congressional standards - $1 trillion is at least 20% bigger than the GFC rescue package.
Many senators are pushing their own proposals hoping to advance their broader agenda. Hopefully, bipartisanship can prevail over point-scoring when time is of the essence. In fact, direct cash payments are fast becoming the number one stimulus idea, with even the White House proposing a half-trillion-dollar package, which would be spent on cash payments to households.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is playing a pivotal role in getting the latest deal right and over the line.
Other countries are also injecting money into their economies to fight the effects of COVID-19. The UK stimulus expands sick pay for anyone ill from coronavirus, combined with targeted tax cuts for vulnerable businesses, the BBC reported.
And the New Zealand Government has proposed a US $9.85 billion (4% of GDP) package to subsidize wages and support incomes, MarketWatch said.
With tax cuts and investment incentives, plus relief for industries hardest hit by the fallout from the virus, Australia’s stimulus packages US $109.5 billion, which is 9.7% of that country’s GDP is aimed more at business than workers. But, the Bill has a provision to help apprentices and trainees retain their jobs. It does this by offering eligible employers a 50% wage subsidy for up to nine months (January 2020 – September 2020).
In Ireland, the government has pushed through a $3.1 billion (0.9% of GDP) stimulus to reform sick pay and illness benefits. It makes sure all workers – even the self-employed – have access to funds if they contract COVID-19, Extra.ie said.
As meaningful as these efforts are, there’s no doubt they’re only a first step. I would like to see something similar to the Australian response to sustain and boost youth apprenticeships in the third stimulus package for the US. This could prevent the us losing a generation of Americans so needed for our workforce today and tomorrow?
International studies suggest that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers may get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity, reduced waste and more significant front-line innovation.
Given all the data we have about the long-term social and economic costs of youth unemployment and disengagement, the price of the alternative may be too costly to fathom.
Governments can be expected to open their wallets, and spend whatever it takes to remove systemic and social uncertainty plus give people the confidence to think beyond the short term. I expect multiple rounds of government stimulus, potentially trillions of dollars worldwide, with many new and novel ideas tested.
Who knows? We might even be at the start of a new era of social protections for workers and their families. Because there’s one thing a pandemic brings home: we’re all in this together.
Nicholas Wyman is the CEO of the IWSI America, which is a global enterprise, committed to apprenticeship, skills and workforce development in today and tomorrow's workplace. He is the Author of award winning Job U How to Find Wealth and Success (Penguin) and the recent report: It’s Time. Using Modern Apprenticeship to Reskill America.
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