The analysis found that a disproportionate share of these workers are people of color, part of families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and less likely to hold a college or postgraduate degree. Above all, they are much more likely to be women: Almost two-thirds of the frontline workers studied were women, compared with just less than half of workers overall. As a group, the study’s authors wrote, these Americans “were essential before the pandemic hit, yet also overworked, underpaid, under protected, and under appreciated.”
The coronavirus crisis seems likely to recast the debate about how to bolster these workers, both between the parties and within the Democratic Party itself.
Democrats during both the Clinton and Obama administrations backed several measures to improve the circumstances of low-wage employees, for instance by expanding the earned-income tax credit. But their principal focus was on helping these Americans escape their jobs by acquiring more skills through training or higher education.
That emphasis was already changing inside the Democratic Party even before the outbreak hit. “More and more progressive policy advocates” have warned that “the focus on education and skills … has distracted from a broader focus on issues of concentrated economic power at the top, declining unionization, and erosion of the minimum wage,” writes Gene Sperling, the former director of the National Economic Council for both Clinton and Obama, in his new book published this week, Economic Dignity.
The coronavirus outbreak will reinforce that trend. It sends the stark message that society will always need people to fill jobs that don’t require advanced education and are not highly valued in the marketplace, but that are indispensable to running the economy. To many progressive advocates, that means the government doesn’t need to just help people graduate beyond those jobs, but also ensure that the people working in them—since people will always be working in them—can secure the wages and benefits to live a decent life.
Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told me that the spotlight on these essential industries has only crystallized what the long-term labor-market projections have already made clear: Relying solely on improving skills to improve living standards is a flawed strategy because forecasts show that the share of jobs requiring advanced education won’t be much larger in the future than it is now.
Worker advocates complain that the paid-leave and unemployment protections passed by Congress in the Families First and CARES Acts contain too many loopholes and exceptions. (For instance, large chains with thousands of employees but no more than 500 at any one location are exempted.) But advocates agree that the bills could advance the debate for providing protections on a permanent basis. “Much of what’s in the CARES Act is pointing toward the kind of system we should have,” says Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a co-author of the group’s study on essential workers. “It really is just deciding that we are going to have a sensible floor for working people and government has to be part of the solution.”