How the COVID-19 response deepened workforce inequality and what workers are doing about it

Nearly three years have passed since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the United States. After a series of shutdowns halting much of normal life, the largest federal stimulus package in U.S. history, and a mass vaccination campaign, policymakers and pundits were quick to agree that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. Despite this messaging, U.S. COVID-19 cases were higher in the early-2022 Omicron wave than at any other point during the pandemic. As the narrative shifted to living with endemic COVID and going back to work, temporary safeguards for workers throughout the pandemic, such as increased unemployment benefits, were removed.

While a roller-coaster labor market has at times favored workers during the pandemic, the lows were low, and the highs were offset by inflation paired with the removal of federal economic supports that had kept people afloat early in the pandemic. Despite this, policies that will make the labor market even worse for working people are on the horizon. The care economy has become untenable for patients, their loved ones, and care workers alike. A lack of safeguards for workers amid the pandemic has created dangerous workplaces and led to unsustainable attrition, and the care burden placed on families is keeping people — particularly women and especially women of color — out of work.

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All of these choices — sending vulnerable workers back in the midst of a pandemic; letting an under-regulated and underfunded care
industry erode; and removing economic safeguards that kept low-wage workers from financial peril — have created an environment for working people that further entrenches structural inequities. Although the pandemic brought to light the roots of an economy that relies on worker vulnerability and exploitation, moving beyond a return to “business as usual” will require a continued examination of how poor people, Black and Brown people, women, and people at the intersection of these identities are a central part of America’s essential workforce yet still disproportionately bear the brunt of exploitative and inhumane work conditions.

Making progress will require that working people demand that their employers value, respect, and protect them. Many people have been able to pursue additional education and training needed to move to more stable and less dangerous careers. Federal supports and extended unemployment benefits, although short-lived, have given us a glimpse of a system that can support people during hard times. And faced with a callous disregard for their safety and health, working North Carolinians and others around the country have stood together and walked out, gone on strike, formed unions, and otherwise demanded that employers do better for working people.

Workers have given policymakers a blueprint for how to support them — by maintaining a safety net that allows marginalized workers to take care of their basic needs; by reducing the caregiving burden of working people; by providing well-paid, dignified jobs for people working as caregivers; and by helping workers build power in their workplaces and in our democracy to protect themselves, their coworkers, and their families. If we follow this blueprint, we can build a more just North Carolina.

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