Tiffany and her boyfriend worked at restaurants in New York, and when the coronavirus emergency shuttered restaurants, they were laid off within hours of each other. Now they have no income, and working for tipped wages left them with little reserves. When I heard from her, they were living on canned fruits and vegetables.
Her story is unfortunately all too common. It’s also a reminder that the American workplace was broken even before this crisis hit. Hardworking people—especially women and people of color—are often just one emergency away from financial ruin.
More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and more than half are women. We need to ensure that they not only return to the workplace, but that the workplace they return to offers them more opportunity and stability. This is the time for bold, transformative legislation that reshapes the way we work and the way we value people.
Training today for the jobs of tomorrow
As our economy adjusts to a new reality, millions of job-seeking Americans will need new skills and training to reenter the workforce. In the short-term, I’ve called for the next coronavirus relief package to include $15.1 billion to train workers for in-demand jobs like manufacturing PPE and essential equipment. I’ve also pushed for the creation of a national Health Force, which would retrain and employ one million Americans in coronavirus response efforts, like testing, contact tracing, and other public health needs.
In the long-term, we must make higher education–including community college and vocational education–more affordable and accessible. Those programs can prepare people for the jobs of the future in areas like healthcare, education, STEM, and green technology. Anyone willing to devote two years to public service should be eligible for free tuition at community college and state schools.
Paying a livable wage
Many of the people working essential jobs earn a wage they can’t afford to live on. Working 40 hours a week, every week of the year, only nets minimum wage workers $15,080. That’s below the poverty line for a family of two. No one who works full-time should be in poverty.
Many of the people working essential jobs earn a wage they can’t afford to live on. ”
We need to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, which can be as low as $2.13 an hour, and raise the minimum wage. Passing the Raise the Wage Act would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 by 2024, benefitting workers, their families, and our economy.
Closing the pay gap
The average woman has to work 15 months to get paid what the average man earns in one year. Every year, she falls further behind. The gap is substantially wider for women of color. It’s disgraceful that we don’t have equal pay in this country.
We need to value the work women do–especially when they play crucial frontline roles as nurses, pharmacists, and grocery store clerks. We need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and guarantee that equal work is recognized with equal pay.
Providing universal paid sick and family leave
Right now, eight in 10 workers in our country don’t have access to paid family leave. Six in 10 don’t have access to paid medical leave. If they or a loved one get sick, they face an impossible choice between their family’s economic security and its health.
If essential workers can’t afford to stay home when they are sick; they become vectors for illness in our hospitals, grocery stores, and meatpacking plants. Ensuring sick people can stay home is crucial to combating this virus, and to improving our workplaces writ large. The PAID Leave Act would provide universal paid family and medical leave during this crisis and establish America’s first universal policy when it’s over, fundamentally improving the way we work and live.
Making healthcare affordable and accessible
Too often, when someone loses a job, they not only lose their paycheck, they lose their health insurance. We need to decouple health insurance from employment and expand access to Medicaid and Medicare to ensure that everyone can receive affordable care. Healthcare must be a right, not a privilege.
Rewarding good work
Allowing workers across the country to form unions will help amplify their voices, but we should go a step further. The hardworking people at the heart of a company’s success should share in it. We should provide incentives for employee-owned businesses and those seeking to share profits. Business models that keep the values and interests of employees and their communities front and center should be promoted, not attacked by Wall Street’s greed. Rewarding good work also means eliminating greed as a business model and changing tax law to reward companies that work for the common good, not those that send jobs overseas.
If we had had even two of these policies in place, someone like Tiffany might have been able to take paid time off instead of losing her job and she would have earned more while she was working to live off while she can’t. We don’t know when this crisis will end, but we know it will. When it does, we’ll all be better off if we use the time we have now to lay the foundation for a better future.
Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democratic senator from New York. She is the Senate author of the FAMILY Act, which would establish America’s first universal paid family and medical leave policy.