The spread of COVID-19 represents a health crisis for millions, but it’s also putting the precarious nature of our economy into stark relief. People are missing shifts, facing layoffs, and the future is uncertain. But for the millions of people in the U.S. who live paycheck to paycheck, this is just more of the same, but worse. What was previously an abstract concept to many — a life where you don’t know where the next paycheck is coming from, or if bills will get paid — is suddenly very real to a lot more people. The government and corporations are scrambling to enact emergency measures to help, but that’s a short-term fix to what is, in reality, a long-term problem. After we make sure that all Americans can stay safe and healthy through this pandemic, we need to make sure all Americans are safe and healthy when there isn’t a pandemic.
Things seem scary because they are. As we hunker down in the name of social distancing, millions of Americans are wondering what’s going to happen next. Non-essential businesses are closing up shop. Huge corporations are laying off thousands of workers. As the stock market slides, people are worried about their investments and retirement accounts. The World Health Organization is calling this time a “test of our resolve.”
We’re all scared right now. But the truth is, millions of Americans were already living scared, every day. No, they weren’t living under the threat of a pandemic. But they were living under the perpetual threat of losing their job, falling ill and not having sick leave, or encountering an entirely unaffordable minor emergency. Millions of people were already worried — before COVID-19 was ever a thing — about whether they could get medical care for themselves or their families.
Now that so many more of us share these same fears, let’s lean into those feelings. Let’s take our uncertainty and use it to access real empathy for the millions and millions and millions of people who already dealt with uncertainties like this day in, and day out. People who, when this is all over, will continue living this way while we all seek to regain our normalcy. Unless we do something about it.
In response to COVID-19, businesses are making unprecedented policy changes that grant employees paid sick leave, or continue paying lost wages. This is a huge first step, but our country can’t afford to stop there. These short-term solutions are meant to help Americans survive without being bankrupted by COVID-19.
Give your people permanent paid sick leave. The fact is that most Americans are one missed paycheck away from economic hardship — because of that, 90% of people go to work when they’re sick. You have the power to change this. Let people take the time to care for themselves, or their families, when illness rears its head without the threat of getting evicted.
After that, instruct your HR teams to research the next biggest gaps in your workforce’s quality of life. Invest in filling them. On your next quarterly earnings call, talk about how you are making long-term investment in the business. Because a workforce with a higher quality of life will, quite simply, be a more quality workforce. And your people are your business.
First, recognize that before the pandemic hit, the economy was not thriving — regardless of what the stock market looked like.
Over the past few decades, the economy may have been growing, but that’s different; as evidenced by the fact that 78% of workers live paycheck to paycheck, and 21% of Americans have no retirement savings. Costs have outpaced earnings to the point where, in 2018, a year of wages no longer covered a year of family expenses. It takes male earners 53 weeks’ worth of salary to cover 52 weeks of living; for female earners, it takes 66 weeks. Compare that with 1985, when male breadwinners would have 22 weeks of pay left over, and women would have 7.
This is all to say that millions of Americans were already vulnerable to the ups and downs of everyday life, long before the pandemic.
One way to address this is to stop blindly viewing unchecked growth as a good thing. We need to implement an effective quality metric alongside the GDP — one that gives reliable insight into the everyday lives of working Americans, so they don’t continue to get lost in the shuffle. The quality metrics we use today are out of date, and no longer serve as an effective proxy for the average American’s lived experience. One place to start is with Oren Cass’ Cost of Thriving Index, which seeks to expose the divergence between our “good economy” and the actual lived experiences of American families.
Policymakers must also work together to expand healthcare options and availability to all Americans. Even in a time of crisis, it remains unclear whether the uninsured can get tested and treated. After we fix this for COVID-19, it’s time to fix it for good. All Americans need access to reasonable, affordable healthcare, pandemic or no pandemic.
We cannot make life humane and livable only in pandemics. We have to do it for everyday Americans. When CEOs tell us, “the things my company is doing today to help are not sustainable beyond this emergency,” we should see that admission as progress. It is progress to admit that the economy is not in a state where businesses can provide an acceptable quality of life for the average worker. And then we must come together to create an America where workers don’t have to live in fear of being bankrupted — not by a pandemic, but by the common cold.
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