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The bailout after the Great Recession led to a proliferation of low-quality, gig economy jobs. To recover from COVID-19, we can’t repeat the same mistakes.

Héctor Huezo

When countries around the world scrambled to respond to the global financial meltdown in 2008, we saw very clearly that countries that invested in their economies recovered faster than those that tightened their belt. As we face the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can use lessons from 2009 to recover faster and prepare to withstand future recessions. It’s simple: our public dollars should strengthen communities and empower workers, instead of bailing out massive industries.

In 2009, as I was beginning my career in workforce development, I helped put nearly 1,000 high school and college-age youth into temporary, stimulus-supported jobs through the publicly funded American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The purpose of this effort was to stimulate economic activity and expose young people to employment so that they learned the valuable skills required for them to be successful in any job.

The majority of youth went into retail and service jobs — but we couldn’t predict then that the growth of these kinds of jobs would become lifelines to working families who needed a second income to support themselves. They became Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Grubhub jobs, along with Amazon and Whole Foods jobs. The lasting legacy of ARRA was that it failed to use the power of stimulus funding to build worker power and create opportunities for people to enter higher paying, stable jobs with family sustaining wages. 

Although well intentioned, ARRA was too small and short-lasting. It left us with a stimulus hangover: a slower, extended recovery; a proliferation of low quality jobs; and weakened protections for workers and families. Instead of building a stronger and fairer economy, ARRA  widened income inequality and increased employment precarity, putting us all at risk of financial hardship amidst future recessions.

What we need now is to harness stimulus dollars in a way that leads to quality employment in sectors that fuel a just economy by putting people and the planet over profits. We need to break the crisis-recovery-crisis cycle, and use the power of our public dollars to build a fair, resilient society and prevent future crises in the first place. 

We need to break the crisis-recovery-crisis cycle, and use the power of our public dollars to build a fair, resilient society and economy that helps prevent crises in the first place. 

First things first: we need all future bailouts and stimulus dollars to go directly to the working families impacted by COVID19. That means insisting that companies who receive our public dollars rehire or retain workers that were laid off or furloughed, and that no worker returning to their job earn less than a $15 an hour minimum wage. But these conditions are just the bare minimum. 

We know that letting workers stay home when they’re sick slows the spread of disease. As schools shuttered, families had to scramble to figure out child care while balancing work responsibilities. Expanding access to family leave and increasing paid sick time are critical tools to weather a crisis like this pandemic. They also raise job quality and protect working families against the downward spiral of lost wages that often lead to missed payments on utility bills, housing, and other necessary expenses. (Yes, we should freeze and forgive rents, mortgages, and utilities, too.) 

We also need to think long-term about preparing workers who have had barriers to high quality job opportunities. By investing our public dollars in paid pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, we can make sure that our stimulus spending creates good job opportunities in fields like manufacturing, transit, water, and electric power distribution that desperately need trained workers. By prioritizing partnership models that include community, workforce, labor and business stakeholders, we can remove barriers to training for workers who could not otherwise afford to take time off to learn new skills. For local communities to see the benefits of stimulus investments, we need local and targeted hire initiatives like those proposed in the Build Local Hire Local Act.

Supporting working families and improving job standards goes a long way to improve health access for workers and communities. Public dollars can help usher us away from a 20th century economy that relies on fossil fuels and into a 21st century green economy that prioritizes clean air, good jobs, and an expanded concept of public good. Expanding and electrifying our mass transit infrastructure, ensuring clean water access, and building out information and energy distribution networks are just some of the ways that public dollars can create the most public good. 

Let’s not waste an opportunity to fundamentally strengthen our economy while staying healthy after COVID-19. Raising job quality, improving job training, and investing in strengthening communities helps us break away from the disaster capitalism that has us short on medical supplies and at risk of eviction. By going a step further and making these investments permanent, we can ensure fast recovery and lasting resilience for decades to come.

Héctor Huezo is the Senior Workforce Equity Coordinator at Jobs to Move America. He is responsible for implementing and expanding on the California Coalition’s workforce policies and community benefits wins to ensure more equitable and diverse hiring and training pathways into good job opportunities.

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