Briceño: Job loss, the Looming Coronavirus Problem

The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic can feel overwhelming and frightening. In addition to life-threatening health risks, many people face another shock: loss of work.

As Co-President of UNITE HERE Local 11, we represent 32,000 hospitality workers. Our members work at sports stadiums, hotels, convention centers, and theme parks, places that have been wisely closed to protect public health.

Nearly 80% of our members have faced job loss, and our industry expects to lose 3.9 million jobs nationwide. That’s a worse blow than 9/11 and the great recession combined. Sadly, our industry is not alone. The U.N.’s International Labor Organization estimated that the Coronavirus response could produce 25 million job losses worldwide, and drain up to $3.4 trillion of income by the end of this year.

Many families, including many of our union members, live paycheck to paycheck. Even a temporary loss of work can lead to food shortages, evictions, and utility shut-offs that can spiral into tragic long-term financial distress.

We’re already seeing signs of financial stress among workers. Unemployment applications are skyrocketing across the United States, and our union is organizing food drives, emergency health coverage, and training to help people file for unemployment.

Many of our nation’s leaders are talking about ways to stem the economic fallout. We must learn from the lessons of the 2008 Great Recession, when we bailed out corporations but not people. We can’t do that again. This time, America’s families must be front and center.

Let’s recognize our nation’s health care workers, grocery workers, and other essential services workers for keeping our nation running during a time of crisis.

Nurses and doctors need medical equipment and supplies. Workers across all industries need stronger work protections and paid training to contain Coronavirus while on the job. Workers need paid sick leave and guaranteed health coverage.

If a company needs to let go of workers during the COVID-19 response, workers need protections that they can return once the company can take them back. Such fair layoffs could include a commitment to re-hire staff at the same seniority level and salary.

Economists are projecting a surge in unemployment, which will create extreme financial hardship for millions of Americans. Our leaders need to provide immediate crisis relief.

We need a temporary moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, utility shut-offs and terminations of health coverage. Families also need vouchers for emergency housing, phone and internet access, utilities, and medical costs to ease the incoming debt load.

Food insecurity is a growing threat, especially for families with children, and it compounds health risks in many ways. We need more funding for food banks, and we need to lower the barriers to food programs like WIC, SNAP, and free school meals.

Seniors and families with children need our support for online connection and engagement. Emergency internet services, such as those provided by Spectrum One, can help.

People experiencing homelessness need immediate intervention. We need medical staff at all shelters to issue frequent health checks, and we need to relocate those at high risk. We need to alter homeless shelters from cramped, high-density centers to dispersed centers with enough room for social distancing, and we need sanitation like handwashing stations and portable bathrooms placed across Orange County.

Donald Trump wasted nearly two months of valuable preparation time lying about COVID-19’s health risks. He continues to use the virus to throw racist attacks against China and Asian-Americans. While Republicans did nothing, Democrats in Congress — including our newly elected Orange County Congressmembers — passed an immediate relief package for emergency paid sick leave. Republican Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to the Senate for a vote, causing even further delay.

The Republican-majority Orange County Board of Supervisors is responsible for Orange County’s public health. Yet out of their ideological drive, and not out of public health protection, they slashed health and social services for years. Today, they continue to fail to pass health and economic protections to keep all residents safe and financially stable.

City Councils and County Boards can pass eviction protections, and utility bill protections. This would surely help preserve quarantines and help our local economy rebound more quickly. To any local leaders who, like Donald Trump, may be downplaying COVID-19, perpetuating hoaxes, or simply delaying full necessary action, I remind them: To a virus, we are all the same. We are all at risk.

For those of us watching this unfold, we have the power to help. A phone call to your city council representative or county supervisor would help families like the ones I work with — and many others.

Call your city council, school board, and the Orange County Board of Supervisors and Orange County Board of Education. Tell them to implement full health and relief protections for all residents, including working families, those who are food insecure, those at risk of eviction or foreclosure, and those experiencing homelessness. Orange County elected officials can take swift action — if they choose to.

Over the past few days, I have seen union workers cry tears of joy to receive emergency health care coverage and food. We must not leave Orange County families behind.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, let’s stay in this together. Americans have survived many crises over history. By bringing everyone to the table, we can surmount this one too.

Ada Briceño is Chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, serving more than 591,000 registered Democratic voters; Co-President of UNITE-HERE Local 11, representing 32,000 workers; and Board President of OCCORD, Orange County Communities Organizing for Responsible Development.

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