WASHINGTON—Congress needs to enact “at least $1 trillion” in federal aid for state and local governments in order to prevent public services from collapsing, AFSCME President Lee Saunders declared this month.
Speaking on a June 18, telephone press conference organized by the union, he said about 1.6 million public-sector workers have lost their jobs since the COVID-19 epidemic hit, more than three times as many as were laid off during the Great Recession. That impairs essential public services, he continued, and hits Afro-American workers disproportionately, as they are more likely to have jobs in the public sector than other races are.
The nation is facing a triple crisis, Saunders said: the epidemic, the worst unemployment levels since the 1930s, and persistent structural racism.
“These three crises are interconnected,” he averred. “Ignore any one of them and the others will get worse.”
The HEROES Act, passed by the House May 15, would provide $500 billion in aid for state governments — distributed according to their rate of COVID-19 infections, population, and level of unemployment — and another $375 billion to county and municipal governments, said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn). If these budgets are allowed to collapse, the people “who will be hurt the most are the people of the African American communities, who have been systematically victimized by racism,” he added. “Now, the Senate must step up to provide the necessary funding for our states, counties, municipalities and for the American people.”
The Senate has not taken any action on the measure. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said it would never come to the floor in its current form, and called its extension of the $600-a-week supplement to unemployment benefits a “crazy policy that is paying people more to remain unemployed.”
Public-sector workers provide essential services such as education, housing, sanitation, transportation, public health, and public safety, Jeffries said. Funding those services would “work for all Americans,” he added, but also ease the damage of racism, as government jobs have been “one of the most dependable employers of African Americans” and a traditional path to the middle class.
“Nothing could prepare me for this level of loss,” said AFSCME Local 3354 President Sandra Herbert, a certified nursing assistant at the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home, a 336-bed state-operated nursing home for veterans in New Jersey. About 300 residents there have tested positive for the virus, and 80 residents and one staff member have died. Workers there still lack personal protective equipment, she said, and Gov. Phil Murphy has warned that without federal aid, the state will have to cut health care.
“We need to be more prepared for this kind of disaster,” Herbert said. That would include investing more in public health, social services, and medical testing, she explained.
Racial disparities in the labor market persist, said Gbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the centrist Center for American Progress. The 5.5% percent unemployment rate for black workers last October was a historic low, but still twice the rate for white workers, he added. Now, with overall unemployment down slightly as the country reopens, the rate for black workers is still going up because of public-sector cuts.
The $150 billion provided to state and local governments by the federal CARES Act enacted in March was “insufficient” to stem those cuts, Ajilore said, and it also excluded rural areas and small cities.
Stopping the hemorrhage of public-sector jobs “means keeping nurses and other front-line health-care workers on the job, and it means the trash gets picked up and it means someone answers the phone when you call 911,” Saunders said. “We must fund the front lines.”