Maps and daily counts of the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) around the world have become a staple of television, the Internet, and print media. Not unreasonably, Americans fearful of contracting the virus have emptied their local supermarkets and drugstores of masks, soap, and hand sanitizers in hopes that simple measures will protect them. Meanwhile, concerned officials are telling people they should speak to their employers about their work-from-home options and, if they begin to exhibit flu-like symptoms, to stay home.
Unfortunately, this latest global pandemic throws into stark relief the status of our broken healthcare and labor systems. Low-wage workers who care for our children, staff our hospitals, and work the kitchens and cash registers in our fast food restaurants cannot work at home. Nor, in the event they get sick without adequate insurance, can they afford to get tested for COVID-19 or obtain medical care. For them, and many others, missing a day's pay almost always results in dire financial consequences. Many have no paid sick days or family care days; they live in constant fear of losing their wages or, worse, their jobs. And if schools are closed, who will care for their own children when they report to work?
The all-but-inevitable spread of the virus in the United States is about to bring us face-to-face with a simple fact: masks (as the surgeon-general reminded us in a tweet!) and hand sanitizers will not make us safe; only fair wages, a strong social safety net, and universal paid family and medical leave will protect Americans from the worst consequences of the virus. In a quote that has circulated widely across social media, journalist and author Anand Giridharadas observed, "Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling."
It is past time for us to focus on raising that floor. United Methodist Women sees this as a justice imperative informed by our faith tradition. All are welcome at God’s table and all should have "abundant life." It is both right and necessary to protect every member of society. Indeed, in the U.S., only lately have we come to the realization that a highly inequitable society in which a minority have access to quality jobs, healthcare, childcare, and flexible schedules while far too many have to work several jobs, without benefits, to make ends meet is one in which we all suffer.
In the U.S., the inequity in options for self and family care is also racialized, as a disproportionate number of people of color are concentrated in low-wage service and construction jobs, reflecting structural inequalities in access to education and professional career tracks. The imperative to address racial equity is not just the responsibility of the people who live with those inequities on a daily basis; it is a collective responsibility. Not just because equity and justice are noble principles, but because, as a nation and a people, our collective safety and security depend on the well-being of all.
Today, many organizations are fighting for racial equity and fair wages, and the current moment gives us another reason to do so. United Methodist Women is engaged in a Living Wage for All campaign with the goal of raising wages and securing benefits for all workers. With our partner Family Values @ Work, we are mobilizing members and ordinary Americans to advocate for universal paid family and medical leave through the FAMILY Act (H.R. 1185/S. 463). It is a bipartisan bill that will provide family and medical leave for all Americans through a fund fed by employers and employees that moves when a worker does. In a letter to the editor in the New York Times, Ellen Bravo, strategic adviser for Family Values @ Work observes, "[I]t shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us that we all have a stake in a universal standard of paid sick days and paid family and medical leave....For nearly seven in ten workers who earn low wages — and more than three in ten overall — [staying home] can cost you your pay, and maybe your job."
Or as Jennifer Morales, who also works for Family Values at Work, puts it: "Workers shouldn't have to rely on the boss lottery, praying that they land a boss who is sympathetic to their needs, in order to have comfort in knowing that they’ll have time to care for themselves and their loved ones."
It’s time to do the right thing for low-wage workers in terms of wages, benefits, childcare, and health care. The global spread of coronavirus is a reminder that we're all in this together — and an opportunity for all Americans to advocate loudly for much-needed healthcare and labor reform.