‘It is a heavy load to carry’: New national report recommends pay hikes, labor reforms for essential workers

(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

If there’s been one enduring image during our pandemic year, it’s been that of the essential worker: The nursing home worker, the grocery store cashier, the postal service workers, and countless hundreds of thousands of others who kept the wheels of the economy turning, often at great personal risk, for shockingly low wages.

new report by scholars at the Brookings Institution attempts to quantify the contributions of those frontline workers, reaching a critical, bottom line conclusion: We need to do more than just call these workers essential, we have to treat them that way by paying them more, and lifting the barriers, such as structural racism, that prevent them from getting ahead.

“It is long past time that we treat essential workers as truly essential,” the report’s authors, Molly Kinder, a fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, and Laura Stateler, a research assistant in the same program, write. “Lawmakers in Washington and around the country have the opportunity to turn their policy rhetoric into real change. The recommendations in this report lay out how federal, state, and local policymakers can — finally — give essential workers what they have always deserved: the dignity of a living wage, lifesaving protections, and power in their workplaces.”

Brookings rolled out the findings included in the report during a webinar on Thursday.

The  truth of the economic challenges these workers are facing is right there in the data. Using an essential worker classification data set crafted by Brookings, and 2018 data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Kinder and Stateler found that 23.3 million essential workers were in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 an hour, “comprising approximately half (47 percent) of all workers in these low-wage occupations.”

In addition, Black and brown workers are overrepresented “among essential workers in low-wage frontline positions that pose health risks,” the two scholars found.

(Source: The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program)

One such essential employee, Tony Powell, works as a unit secretary at a hospital in the southeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood where he grew up. He shared his experience of being a frontline worker during the pandemic.

“It is a heavy load to carry,” Powell told Kinder and Stateler, according to the report. “Sometimes it feels like you are carrying a car up a mountain. You can’t put yourself in a bubble when you see people around you dying. I see people I went to school with and grew up with. They’ll come in and just like that, they are gone. It is really mind blowing that you can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

In addition to hiking the federal minimum wage to $15, as has been proposed by congressional Democrats and the Biden administration, the Brookings report also makes several other policy recommendations.

They include: Read more

Congressional Dems bent the universe toward justice last week. We need to keep pushing

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Hopes of getting an increase to the piteously low federal minimum wage tucked into the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill were dealt a serious blow this week when the U.S. Senate’s Parliamentarian ruled that it couldn’t be included in the massive legislative package now moving through Congress.

The announcement that came Thursday night was widely expected, and the ruling from the strenuously nonpartisan arbiter threw a major roadblock into Congressional Democrats’ path to raising the current federal minimum from $7.25 an hour, where it has sat since 2009, to $15 an hour by 2025, the Associated Press reported.

But if there is a ray of hope here, it is that it now feels like it’s a matter of when, not if, the government will move to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

And it was one of two developments on Capitol Hill this week that signaled that, after a four-year pause, the United States is back on the path toward living up to the promise of equality and justice for all.

That other development was the U.S. House’s vote Thursday approving a sweeping LGBTQ rights bill, known as the Equality Act. The legislation bans sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination across a variety of arenas, including employment, housing, education, public accommodation, credit, and jury service, according to NBC News.

“The LGBTQ community has waited long enough,” U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the bill’s sponsor, said during remarks on the House floor, according to NBC News. “The time has come to extend the blessing of liberty and equality to all Americans, regardless of who they are or who they love.”

The need for that embedded protection was driven home, ironically enough, not in an employment law case in a state court, but in the halls of the U.S. Capitol this week during a pair of incidents.

During a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, President Joe Biden’s pick for the No. 2 position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Rachel Levine, of Pennsylvania, endured a transphobic rant at the hands of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, tried to draw a pernicious equivalency between female gender mutilation and gender affirmation surgery for transgender youth. If she’s confirmed, Levine would be the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the federal government, the Capital-Star’s Laura Olson reported.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., meanwhile, was blasted this week after she hung an offensive sign outside her office to mock a colleague across the hall who had displayed a transgender flag outside her office in support of her transgender daughter and to protest Greene’s opposition to the Equality Act. Greene’s sign read, “There are two genders: Male & Female. Trust the science.”

Greene’s assertion, by the way, flies in the face of current scientific assumptions about gender.

But the two incidents are emblematic of the sort of hostile workplace behavior that LGBTQ Americans endure every day without blanket federal protection, though there are a patchwork of protections at the state level, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Read more

Biden’s executive orders aren’t the problem. A broken Congress is

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It was tough not to chuckle at a New York Times editorial last week chastising President Joe Biden for the barrage of executive orders that have gone flying out of the Oval Office during his first week behind the Resolute Desk, as if he were the first president ever to do so.

“This is no way to make law. A polarized, narrowly divided Congress may offer Mr. Biden little choice but to employ executive actions or see his entire agenda held hostage,” the Times’ editorial board soberly inveighed. “These directives, however, are a flawed substitute for legislation.”

They’re not wrong — but more on that in a minute.

Biden has, indeed, been busy. He’s committed to the United States rejoining the Paris Climate agreementundone a ban on transgender Americans serving in the armed forces; killed the Keystone XL pipeline; halted construction on the border wallended a hateful Muslim travel ban, and he took action Thursday on a variety of healthcare-related measures.

Predictably, Republicans have grumbled about what they see as wild executive overreach by the 46th president of the United States. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, complained on Twitter: “30 executive orders and actions signed in only 3 days’ time. @POTUS, you can’t govern with a pen and a phone,” according to Newsweek.

The Times’ bellyaching, meanwhile, isn’t off the mark. The editorial board’s bottom-line assessment that legislative authorization is always preferred to executive action is entirely correct. So too is its conclusion about the instability and unpredictability that’s created by governing fiats that disappear in the wind with every change of administration.

But this isn’t a problem that’s particularly unique to Biden. Former President Donald Trump signed a flurry of executive orders, as he sought to undo the legacy of ex-President Barack Obama.

Rather, it’s an issue that goes back decades, as presidents have wielded their powers more broadly, and as Congress has seemingly abdicated much of its law- and war-making authority to the executive.

A review of the last 50 years of executive orders highlights that trend, based on data compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Read more

Biden’s speech was a benediction — and the challenge of our times

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Joe Biden didn’t have to do a lot with his inaugural address Wednesday, just deliver a concise, clear speech that somehow knit together the soul of a deeply fractured nation; offer healing and comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives have been ripped apart by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sketch out a vision for the next four years that spoke to both Main Street and Wall Street.

In other words, no pressure.

But Biden, a politician with the soul of a parish priest, pulled it off, delivering a speech that appealed to the nation’s better angels, while never shying away from the titanic challenge of healing the gaping wound that his predecessor ripped in our body politic with four years of gaslighting, sledgehammer attacks on our institutions, and a social media presence where he was America’s schoolyard bully.

But where his predecessor nursed grievance and exacerbated division, Biden on Wednesday sought reconciliation and, perhaps, even a kind of forgiveness.

“And so today, at this time, in this place, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another,” he said in remarks that stretched an economical 20 minutes. “Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.”

He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name. He didn’t have to.

Trump, the first president to skip an inauguration in 152 years, skulked out of Washington hours before Biden took to the stage at the U.S. Capitol. He left the city in much the same way he entered it, in a funk of self-aggrandizement and a barrage of self-serving falsehoods.

That graceless exit saw Trump try to deflect attention away from the defining facts of his legacy: More than 400,000 Americans dead from a pandemic he was too disinterested in to stop and the attempted coup d’etat he incited just two weeks before, leaving him the only chief executive in American history to be impeached twice by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Biden’s prayerful address, prefaced Tuesday night by a ceremony on the National Mall honoring the pandemic’s victims that was, by turns, beautiful, painful, and consoling, strained for connection for the American public. It was a reflection of a veteran pol who’s known for lingering for hours along a rope line, as he pulls out the life story from a stranger he’d met only moments earlier.

“We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs,” he said at one point. “We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”

The contrast with Trump’s dystopian “American Carnage” address, delivered four years, and several lifetimes ago, on the same spot, could not have been more stark. Read more

One-time NC journalist talks turkey (and barbecue) on the Confederate flag

John Micek

I’ve gotten a few letters from readers over the past couple of weeks, who, upon reading my constant (and wholly justified) criticism of President Donald Trump, have asked me—some more politely and in publishable terms than others—if I have anything nice to say at all.

So, critics, write down the day. I am about to say something nice. Treasure this moment. Clip this column. Put it on your refrigerator at home.

The Pentagon did the right thing last Friday when it announced a new policy effectively banning the display of the Confederate battle flag at military installations around the country.

The decision, announced by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, is admittedly imperfect. It lists the kinds of flag that are permissible: the American flag; the flags of U.S. states and territories as well as Washington D.C; military flags and those of allies, according to Politico. It specifically leaves out the Confederate flag, which, by inference, is banned.

As Politico notes, the half-a-loaf solution is intended to satisfy military leaders who have been pushing for the change and to avoid irritating Trump, who continues to insist that flying the banner of racists and traitors who once enslaved 13.4 percent of our current population is a matter of “freedom of speech.”

That’s a notion so ridiculous on its face that I could spend an entire column on that topic alone. It’s not freedom of speech. It’s an explicit endorsement of the horror that was visited upon our fellow Americans. The Civil War was fought to preserve slavery. Period.

Now before my southern readers proclaim, “You’re just an ignorant Yankee, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I offer this rebuttal, in the mid-1990s, I lived and worked in North Carolina. I treasure my time there. And all these years later, I still carry traces of my time in the south in my bones.

Don’t believe me?

I still pull over for funeral processions. I still call people older than me whom I don’t know “sir” or “ma’am,” until I’m instructed in how they wish to be addressed. I know there’s only one correct answer when a southern woman offers you iced tea—“Yes, ma’am.” And the tea is sweet enough to turn your teeth to dust. None of the unsweetened stuff we drink up north.

And I know there’s only really good kind of barbecue—Lexington. Fight me on it. Read more