OPINION: A Difficult Decision to Make: Unemployment or COVID?


Grant Gaden

Workers are having to make a difficult decision on whether they want to risk living unemployed or work with the risk of contracting COVID-19. Photo courtesy of pexels.com

Something lost in the mess of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that we are currently in what has been considered one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. This is largely due to businesses not being able to fully open or choosing not to open at all.

Personally, I don’t shed a tear, nor should anyone, for the millionaire and billionaire business owners who have seen their flow of income decrease or stop during this time. However, the people who will be impacted by this are the employees of those establishments that depend on a regular paycheck to afford their basic needs. Since the initial phase of shutdowns in March, you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t personally been or at least knows someone who was laid off in the last few months and forced to apply for unemployment benefits to make ends meet.

The initial wave of lay-offs began in March when non-essential businesses were forced to close. Now here we are, nearly in September, after many states like Texas, Arizona and Florida reopened many of their businesses in early to mid-May. Now each of those states has seen a massive increase in their number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Washington Post. These new virus epicenters along with a disregard for social distancing and wearing face masks in most other areas, makes the U.S. the world leader in average daily newly confirmed cases according to the statistics reported by John Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Unemployment percentages have actually decreased from their high of 14.7% in April to 11.1% in the , but it should be noted that this data was collected before a number of states like Texas, Arizona and Florida began to pause or roll back their reopening plans for nonessential businesses like bars and restaurants.

One big reason why there is an increase in the number of cases is that the majority of Americans, young and old, live paycheck to paycheck. Approximately 78% of Americans do so according to a 2017 report by the employment website Careerbuilder. When many of the businesses began to reopen, they were forced to make the tough choice between sheltering in place and risking not the inability to pay rent, or put their health and safety in danger in order to make ends meet. Understandably, most of these people would likely rather be quarantined at home instead of at work, but the government half-heartedly issued one measly $1,200 stimulus check and called it a day while tens of thousands of new cases are still being diagnosed each day across the country.

Even those that received the stimulus payment may have seen it quickly disappear after paying their monthly bills, and are left with little choice but to report back to work or even expose themselves to the virus and find employment in an essential position. This suggestion is even more cruel when you consider the millions that have lost their employer sponsored health insurance with their job, meaning almost all of these families won’t be able to afford a potential hospital stay if they do contract the virus.

With no end in sight to this pandemic in the U.S., the total number of cases and deaths will only increase until there’s an adequate fiscal response from federal and state governments that actually allows most Americans to safely shelter in place without having to worry about losing their home or not being able to buy groceries.

One of the major reasons our economy hasn’t collapsed in this time is the increase in unemployment benefits workers that were laid off in this time can file to collect. The increase in benefits was approved by congress back in March, but those extra benefits were scheduled to stop at the end of July, barring an extension enacted by congress before then. This has been one of the few measures taken by the government to support workers in this time period besides the one-time $1,200 stimulus check. Even this, though, has been pitiful in its response to the scope of the current crisis, as many state unemployment systems have been overloaded with submissions and state employees are having issues processing this backlog due to the data being written in COBOL, a coding language developed decades ago. Not to mention the massive numbers that are not usually seen by these systems. This has led to a number of claims being weeks late in some cases.

Among them is UNO Senior Abby Jenson who didn’t qualify for the stimulus check, but still lost her server job forcing her onto unemployment benefits to make up for the loss in income. “It took about seven to eight weeks to get to me,” said Jenson. “By the time I had gotten it I had found another job which I was already set to start at the next week because I didn’t think it was coming.”

What We Can Do:

In the meantime, working Americans should work to organize amongst themselves. This can and will require efforts on multiple fronts. In July alone 32% of households were unable to pay their house payment on time or in full, according to a survey by the online rental platform Apartment List. This will only get worse as time goes on without some kind of government intervention, which means we need to support fellow renters through mutual financial aid, and joining or even organizing your own local rent strike to protect vulnerable members of our community from being without shelter during a pandemic.

We also need to advocate for organized workers who go on strike to demand fairer working conditions by not shopping at certain retailers when their workers are protesting. Worker strikes and stoppages are more effective when they manage to cut off the earning ability of their employers. So, during a time like this when working class Americans are forced to risk their health and safety to make ends meet, it’s especially important we have class solidarity by not shopping at businesses with employees on strike. You can even organize workers at your own workplace in an effort to fight for safer conditions or hazard pay to compensate for putting yourself in harm’s way by coming to work.

The large businesses and government of this country have shown they have little regard for the working class of this nation through their inaction and callousness to the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans. So as the working class of this nation we should use what leverage we have as the labor of these corporations by enacting work strikes and stoppages especially in key areas of the economy.

One example of this was in April when in Staten Island, New York, Amazon warehouse workers walked off the job to protest the firing of a fellow employee for attempting to organize their workplace to negotiate for hazard pay and safer working conditions during this pandemic. This was soon coordinated with Whole Foods (an Amazon owned company) workers who were similarly fighting for safer working conditions and pay, through a staggered “sick-out” strike. Strategic solidarity strikes, like these, can be even more effective in cutting the income flow of massive corporations to force them to meet the demands of their workers.

This pandemic provides a unique opportunity for workers across the country to realize their collective power and how similar their material conditions are to each other compared to their employers. It also allows more workplaces to create longer lasting structures like unions to continue collectively bargaining for the pay and benefits we all deserve, even after the pandemic eventually subsides. Additionally, unionized workplaces are easier to organize voting blocs more collectively behind certain candidates and proposals that align with worker’s interests.

America’s political systems are uniquely controlled by financial and corporate interests compared to many other western countries. As the labor force of the thousands of corrupt and uncaring corporations across the country, we have the most power over our employers when we act collectively to stop or threaten their flow of profit, giving us the leverage to more effectively demand the benefits and working conditions we deserve. The actual COVID-19 pandemic appears far from over at this point, but we as the working class of this country have a real opportunity in this time. While millions of us are currently experiencing the pain and suffering caused by the inactions of the rich and powerful in this country, we can unite behind these common interests to fight for a better future on the other side.