It’s Time to Wage War Against the Pandemic Called Poverty: Pay Workers What They are Worth, Not What You Can Get Away With

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We have read with great interest the signs on local fast food restaurant billboards and in other job postings. They are desperately seeking employees. To be sure, their need is urgent. In fact, they are so eager to get workers that they are offering as much as  $13, 14, and $15 an hour to lure applicants. 

If you are wondering why many of these businesses—businesses that typically have paid their employees minimum wage or just a few cents more—are now willing to pay as much as $15 an hour to fill their ranks, it is simple. They are having an awfully difficult time attracting applicants right now.

It is true that some unemployed Louisianans receive more in unemployment than they could or would earn on many of the low-wage paying jobs that are staples of the city’s hospitality industry because of the $300 federal boost to benefits that will last through Sept. 6. Weekly benefits range anywhere from $407 to $547. In 2020, under the CARES Act, an additional $600 boost made weekly unemployment payouts as much as $847 for about 16 weeks between April and July of last year. As such, we have no doubt that many unemployed workers across this city have seen a boost to their income—the kind of boost that might make it less likely for them to run out and get a job cleaning hotel rooms or taking food orders without something to compel or entice them back to the workforce sooner rather than later.

The Federal Boost was Sorely Needed – And that is the Problem!

These federal boosts were added to state unemployment payments because congressional lawmakers understood that workers impacted by the pandemic would need money to pay rent, mortgages, buy groceries, pay utilities, and otherwise take care of their families—especially in Louisiana, where the highest unemployment payout of $247 a week is hardly enough to do anything.

So when those weekly boosts—first $600, then $400 and now $300—were added, many unemployment recipients who earned low wages before the pandemic were able to provide for themselves and their families in a manner that was better than when they worked. And that’s the problem.

Consider that the average fast food or hospitality industry job pays about $9 an hour (our estimate is generous) for 30 hours a week (many of these jobs rarely employ individuals at a full-time status as to avoid paying overtime or providing those pesky perks like health insurance, paid time off and so on that a regular, full-time employee would receive). That comes to a meager $270 a week—roughly $1080 a month and not much more than an unemployed worker would get in UI benefits without additional federal stimulus amounts. But with the federal stimulus, some unemployed workers are getting nearly 43 percent more in UI benefits than they earned as workers, and that’s a low estimate.

We know that there are some folks out there that don’t like that all. They say it’s like paying people to sit home and do nothing. They are thumbing their noses in anger and disgust at poor people unwilling to settle for low-paying jobs right now. They even suggest that some current UI recipients are abusing the system, but we say it’s the working poor that has been abused by the system and by big business interests for too long.

Corporations sit back and make billions in profit. CEOs and other executives rake in six-figure salaries and big bonuses—all while the low-wage earners, who are the backbone of these operations, scratch and survive. Mind you, these are the same corporations that raked in way more than their share of forgivable PPP loans made available in response to the COVID-19 while small businesses and 1099 workers were practically shut out of the program in the first round. And they are the same big businesses that line up to get the tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare available to them even when our nation is not responding to a global health crisis.

Now despite what big business interests and conservative voices would have us believe and despite our own speculation, even, there is actually NO evidence that workers are staying out of the job market just to collect unemployment. But let’s say that was true. Let’s just say, for the sake of this argument, that poor workers currently collecting boosted unemployment benefits were actively deciding not to go back to jobs to earn $7.25 or even $8, $9, or $10 an hour flipping burgers, frying chicken, cleaning hotel rooms, bussing tables and the like—at least not any time in the next four months or so. If that were the case, we, at The New Orleans Tribune, would have no problem responding to that with a resounding, “We ain’t madatcha!”

What Would You Do? .  .  .  And Don’t Lie

The dilemma now, of course, is that big business is ready to jumpstart the economy. Hell, they have been ready. They were ready when thousands of Louisianans were still getting diagnosed with and hundreds were dying from COVID-19 daily. But how do they lure unemployed workers back into the workforce? So far, two approaches are taking center stage in this operation. Behind curtain #1, we have the report-and-end approach, with businesses reporting those who refuse to return to jobs that don’t pay them enough to pay their utility bills, buy food or pay rent without relying on some type of social service or government assistance program, a move that will result in the end UI benefits for those unemployed workers. And behind curtain #2, there is the old bait-and-switch game of temporarily offering $15 an hour just long enough to get your operation back into full swing then cut hours and drop earnings back to minimum wage or just a bit more for anyone else who is hired later. They figure by then all of the stimulus programs will be over and poor folk will be resigned to return to working for pennies. By the way, this is exactly what was done as businesses tried to lure workers back to jobs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—the last time a major crisis unmasked the city’s poverty problem. Don’t you remember the fast-food joints offering $13 an hour? And that was back in 2006. Well, we see how that worked out and how long it lasted—16 years later, New Orleans continues to lead the nation in poverty with nearly 24 percent of its residents living at or below the line. And for Black New Orleanians, who disproportionately comprise the city’s low-wage earning population, that rate is even higher at 32 percent.

So let’s get real for a second. If the choice is staying on unemployment until the wheels fall off and receiving benefits that total anywhere between just above $1600 to nearly $2200 a month or going back to work to make less than $1100 a month, what would you choose? Don’t lie.

While either of the current quick fixes to getting people back to work—forcing them off unemployment or temporarily offering higher wages—might seem effective; they are shortsighted. In fact, if the COVID-19 related turn of events should force anything, it should force everyone to take a good, hard look at big businesses and the way they treat and pay their workers instead of criticizing the working poor. It should have members of the Louisiana legislature falling over themselves and knocking each other down to pass a bill that significantly increases the state’s minimum wage well beyond the federal $7.25 an hour. It should have members of Congress, the very body that saw the need for and approved the federal boost to state UI benefits, literally rushing to increase the federal minimum wage for all workers IMMEDIATELY—like today.

When COVID-19 threatened lives and livelihoods, we got serious. We shut down; we masked up; we stayed home; we learned and worked remotely; we fast-tracked vaccine approvals. And our leaders put in place stimulus packages and programs that provided some safeguards so that Americans could stave off financial disaster.

It is time for us to get just as serious about battling the other pandemic that is killing us — POVERTY. And if you don’t think poverty is a killer, think again. More than 45,000 people die in the U.S. every year because they have no access to healthcare, or because the healthcare they receive is substandard due to an inability to pay. 

Here are some of the protocols and the guidelines for that fight: 

  • Communities and the systems they support must provide quality education and opportunities that prepare the workforce for jobs in current and emergent career paths. One of the issues with New Orleans’ economy is that far too many of its residents are dependent upon jobs in low-waging earning industries because of disparities, inequity, and the lack of opportunity.
  • Businesses and corporations must pay people what they are worth based on the value they bring to their operation. If McDonald’s, Burger King, and temporary agencies that provide workers for the hospitality industry need employees so badly that they are now willing to pay $15 an hour, then these workers have always been worth $15 an hour. And if it is economically feasible for them to pay $15 an hour today, then it was feasible for them to do so more than a year ago before the pandemic began.
  • Offer employees benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, sick leave, and guarantee a 40-hour workweek so that they can build better lives and support their families.

If businesses and industries want to truly contribute to a healthy economy and thriving communities, they will value the people they call employees by paying them a wage that not only allows them to survive but enables them to thrive.