State Shutdown Must Come With Help For Workers

By C.R. Mills We’ve been given a false choice in California – we either achieve public health and let people lose their homes, or let people die and keep the economy running. Yet the state could provide both economic security and a path towards ending the spread of the virus with a few simple acts.

With California facing a second shutdown, workers just beginning to see their lives return to some sort of normalcy as restaurants and retail outlets re-opened now face a renewed sense of crisis. Without a way to earn income, workers can’t pay rent, and the state’s weak eviction ban ends just over two months from now on February first.  To make matters worse, unemployment benefits will expire for three-quarters of a million Californians by the end of the year. Governor Newsom’s recent announcement of a curfew, made soon after attending a $350 per plate dinner event with a large group of friends and some lobbyists, will also specifically and negatively impact some of the most long-suffering workers of the pandemic – those working in restaurants, bars, and hotels. In the face of this devastating confluence of events for workers, one thing remains remarkably clear – no statewide plan exists for how to ensure people out of work can stay in their homes and feed their families this winter. 

The answer is not, as the right argues, to simply reopen all businesses and let citizens make their own personal choices as to how careful they want to be. Two crucial problems exist with this argument – first, for us to start interacting with each other again without causing tens of thousands to die, we need to dramatically reduce transmission of the virus throughout the population. Shut-downs represent the single best way to do so. Second, keeping businesses open forces workers to make a Sophie’s choice. Either they get fired for not working, or they enter a workplace that could very well kill them.

The problem right now, however, is that in terms of the two major political parties in the state, Republicans are offering state residents the only plan that attempts to address the economic needs of workers. While their plan would be catastrophic in terms of public health, it at least assures people they will continue to relieve a paycheck, keep a roof over their heads, maintain their health care, and eat. The state’s Democratic establishment has offered no such plan, at their best arguing that the fast the economy shuts down, the sooner it will be open, while still failing to provide real protections for workers during their proposed short-term shutdown. This ends up creating a false choice for state residents – we either achieve public health and let people lose their homes, or let people die and keep the economy running.

Yet the state could provide both economic security and a path towards ending the spread of the virus with a few simple acts. State Democrats like to pretend that they remain powerless in the face of market forces and the private sector’s needs, but in times of crisis, this is utterly false. The state maintains enormous power to ensure the survival of state residents. For example, right now it could:

Declare an immediate ban on evictions that wouldn’t expire until the pandemic ends. This would ease the brutal anxiety of countless state residents facing eviction, and reduce pressure on people to work in unsafe environments simply to ensure they have shelter. The ban could be reevaluated every few months to determine when COVID risk was sufficiently low to lift it. 

Declare an immediate halt to foreclosures. Again, for unemployed state residents who own their home, making their mortgage payment has become nearly impossible, or will become so soon. These people should be guaranteed a right to stay in their home until the pandemic ends.

Ban cancellation of health care policies due to job loss. California stood at the brink of universal health care in this state, but ended up killing it, in large part because many elected Democrats accept massive campaign donations from the insurance industry and pharmaceutical companies. The state has the power not only to revisit universal health care, but more immediately could prevent state insurance companies from ending people’s policies due to job loss. During a pandemic, maintaining health care coverage for all residents represents an essential task of the state.

Tax the rich and pay the unemployed. The state has no shortage of options for taxing the wealthy in California – oil extraction taxes, financial transaction taxes, taxes on the bloated tech industry, and the narrowly defeated Proposition 15 which would have raised property taxes on large corporate businesses, to name a few. All of these options would help address the incredibly large and growing income inequality in the state. There’s certainly an immediate justification for the funds as workers find themselves jobless, suddenly needing to care for their children as schools remain closed, and in desperate need of economic assistance. New revenue could directly replace the federal assistance which has become crystal clear is not coming any time soon.

All of these actions, of course, require the political will of state Democrats to stand up for workers in the face of the powerful industries that fund their campaigns. While they’re unlikely to find this will, we should demand they do so all the same. Making these demands would both offer a real alternative to the right-wing narrative of ‘reopen everything’ and show California that there is a growing movement of workers who will no longer accept being ruled by a government that doesn’t provide basic human needs to its residents during a global pandemic.

This piece also appeared in the L.A. Progressive.

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