There is no question our economy will have to be rebuilt following the disruption caused by COVID-19. The question is, how? Do we try to replicate the way it was before, or do we seek to reshape and rebuild in new ways?
The social, racial and economic disparities facing Denver and our country have been vividly illuminated by the toll that COVID-19 has wrought. Although the virus is not biased, the ability to minimize the risk of contracting it, to fight it, get treatment or mitigate the economic effects of the crisis it caused are all shaped by long-standing, institutional biases. Those biases are baked into employment patterns, workplace standards, health care access and more, resulting in higher infection rates, more hospitalizations and more deaths for people of color and those who are low income. For instance, in May, 54% of the total COVID-19 cases in Denver were in the Hispanic or Latino community, while that demographic only represents 30% of the city’s population. Similarly, 8.5% of Denver’s population is black, but 16.8% of all COVID-19 deaths in Denver have occurred in that community.
Immigrant workers provide the backbone of our service industry, working in restaurants, hotels and entertainment concessions that have closed. Despite paying taxes, those without documents are ineligible for Unemployment Insurance or CARES Act payments, leaving them in greater financial distress. A disproportionate number of people of color and women work in “essential” low-paying jobs that can’t be done from home, like in grocery stores, and unless the jobs are unionized, don’t provide affordable health care. They keep the rest of the community fed and safer at home, but they’re more at risk of contracting the virus. In spite of a temporary federal rule and emergency state order providing some limited sick leave for some workers, there are huge gaps in these orders and in Colorado, uncovered workers are still required to choose between losing pay or coming to work sick, or risk losing their job for calling in sick. Access to childcare, safe transportation and the inequity of our criminal justice system which disproportionately jails people of color who are then more likely to face unsanitary conditions behind bars, all contribute to the disproportionate impacts we see. Homelessness has always come with health risks, but we now understand more than ever that home equals health.
These inequities aren’t inevitable. Twelve states and the District of Columbia, and 32 local governments, require all employers to provide paid sick leave — reducing the spread of colds, flu and deadly coronavirus. Five states and the District of Columbia provide paid family leave so that sick children or elders can be cared for without financial devastation. Several U.S. Senate bills would have provided paths to citizenship for those who help build and maintain our communities. Protecting workers from retaliatory, anti-union tactics could allow them to bargain more equally for fair pay and benefits. Millions of gig workers are benefitting from a taxpayer-funded, emergency unemployment system that their Uber, Lyft, Grub-hub employers never paid a penny to fund, but those companies could be required to pay their fair share going forward. Whether it’s a “Public Option” where families without employer coverage could access a Medicaid-like program, or Universal Health Care, there is no question that our counterparts in countries with proven, comprehensive health care coverage models have fewer pre-existing condition complications and better health outcomes than the United States.
As we look to the future, and we rebuild, we can and must recover equitably. We must build a better economy and safety nets than we had before. We do that by aggressively pursuing community-focused, common-sense policies that are crafted with every member of our community in mind.
Sadly, some have already begun to pit workers-versus-businesses by claiming businesses cannot “afford” fair wages, sick leave or family leave now. This has always been a false either/or division, but the evidence now is greater than ever how very reliant businesses are on the health and contributions of workers, and how our economy benefits when they are in balance.
And let’s be clear: Trillions of federal, taxpayer dollars are already being invested into every level of business recovery, and trillions more are likely to follow. These dollars are necessary, but it’s appropriate for them to reflect the public values and outcomes we expect to see in a post-COVID economy. It will be much easier to reshape these systems at the front end, rebuild businesses around a new, more equitable set of expectations, than to try to re-insert them later. Widespread, similar expectations will create a more level playing field for businesses, and evidence from early-adopters shows that they will benefit from reduced turnover, improved morale and productivity. The right policies will also lower risk of spread of infectious disease among co-workers and customers, thus reducing risk of future closures.
We rebuild better by making sure that if you have lost your job, you have equal access to safety nets and can still access affordable, quality healthcare. We rebuild better by making policy decisions that dismantle racial disparities. We rebuild better by pursuing a world where what is good for low-income workers is also good for our overall economy.
When we stand united as a community, we are powerful and possess the capacity to enact rapid and transformative change. Together, we can make sure Denver, Colorado and the United States rebuild a more equitable, prosperous and sustainable economy for everyone.
Robin Kniech is an at-large Denver City Council member. She was first elected in 2011, and was re-elected in 2015 and 2019. She can be reached at Kniechatlarge@denvergov.org.
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