A fleeting social safety net got us through a pandemic

A fleeting social safety net got us through a pandemic

Paid sick leave, paid family medical leave, increased unemployment benefits, and other emergency measures let us get through COVID-19. If we can make this happen during a state of emergency, we can do so every day, for everyone, everywhere.

With over 80 percent of Vermonters having received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 72 percent of us fully vaccinated, Gov. Phil Scott declared on June 15 an end to the State of Emergency and the termination of pandemic related social restrictions.

It is significant that Vermont was the first U.S. state to reach an 80-percent vaccinated rate. It is also significant that throughout the pandemic, to that point, Vermont suffered only 24,339 known Covid infections and 256 total deaths; both our infection and mortality rate were the least in the nation.

And while even a single death is a regrettable tragedy, stacked against Alabama's half-a-million-plus cases and more than 11,000 (and counting) fatalities, it's clear that we fared better than most.

And while we are not out of the woods yet, we have also emerged tied for second-lowest unemployment rate in the nation, at 2.6 percent. (Texas by comparison is at 6.5 percent, while Florida is at 4.9 percent.)

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How did we do this?

Well, while much of the South and other parts of the country fretted about masks being an infringement of civil liberties and the vaccine being part of some insane conspiracy, most Vermonters from the get-go cared about their communities, abided by social distancing, wore masks (even before any mandates came into effect), and worked collaboratively in making our society resilient in the face of hardship.

When the lockdown went into effect in March 2020, the state started down a path that rapidly expanded access to unemployment, imposed a moratorium on evictions, restricted utility shutoffs, organized free child care for essential workers, made sure that free meals were provided to all kids, guaranteed that folks would be able to receive basic Covid-related health care, tens of thousands of essential workers (including undocumented farm workers) received hazard pay.

Even while restricting or halting indoor gatherings/business, Vermont loosened regulations on outdoor economic activities. These steps, combined with effective social contact tracing and implementation of policy based on science, along with the federal paid sick leave, paid family medical leave, and increased unemployment benefits, went a long way in creating an environment whereby we were able to exponentially reduce the harm threatening our people.

As president of the Vermont AFL-CIO, I am proud that our State Labor Council vocally supported these reasonable steps during those dark times.

But all the good policy in the world would not have mattered if our people did not care about each other, and if folks did not individually endeavor to keep their communities safer by wearing a mask and abiding by social distancing recommendations.

Point being: Vermonters gave a damn about each other and, by and large, together we did right by our communities.

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This is not to say this was a utopian experience, and this is not to say that too many workers weren't unduly put in harm's way in certain towns, by certain employers, and in certain industries. The truth is that many were.

But in numerous cases, even where the employer failed to take proactive steps to keep workers safe, union stewards like those in the city of Newport, stepped up to implement their own health and safety protocols. And in countless other shops, union leaders sat down with management to make sure workers had adequate personal protective equipment and that everything possible was done to keep people healthy.

But that, of course, took place in shops that have a union.

The situation was much more dire in select places of employment and in towns where there was and is no union and where the bosses refused to accommodate the health concerns of workers.

And while there are certainly harrowing tales to be told about the irresponsible actions of some employers, the story as a whole is one where we, as a people, did well.

And our expanded social safety net managed to keep our communities intact, despite it all.

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But here is the thing: Without further action, the steps taken to strengthen the social safety net during the pandemic are fleeting.

Of the many temporary social benefits that were put in place, the only lasting legacies (so far) will be universal mail-in voting for general elections, and an almost-insulting $25 extra per week in unemployment for having a dependent child.

And conversely, as the pandemic subsides, those workers who received livable wages through hazard pay will fall back into economic insecurity.

Evictions and homelessness will again rise. Mandatory paid sick days will fall back to their pre-Covid rates. Paid family medical leave will remain an aspiration. Utilities will be shut off.

Health care, for other deadly diseases, will remain a privilege and not a right. Child care will remain unaffordable for many. Child hunger will return as the free meals wind down. And unorganized workers will still face an unfair and uphill battle when they seek to form a union.

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Even so, the pandemic has shown us two things.

First, Vermonters do stand together when facing a perceived crisis. At our core, we care about each other.

And second, when there is a sense of urgency, when we can hear the wolf knocking at our front door, it is both possible and desirable to rapidly build a social safety net capable of delivering security to our communities and working families.

And if we can do it in a matter of days, weeks, and months, during a state of emergency, we can do it every day, for everyone, everywhere.

Here let us not lose sight of the fact that for people who earn low incomes, for those who are sick, for those who live paycheck to paycheck, the wolf was already at the door long before COVID-19. And as we have just seen, it does not have to be this way.

So while we rightly celebrate the coming out of the darkness that was the Corona-crisis, let us also demand a continuous progression forward toward the common good.

Let us require a future where the core benefits provided during the pandemic (livable wages, expanded unemployment, access to health care, increased paid sick leave, paid family medical leave, free child care, free meals for every child) become a permanent fixture of our social fabric.

And let us go a step further - not only creating a more fair and democratic path by which workers can form a labor union (i.e. card check), but let us also reinvigorate our economy through public investment in infrastructure, affordable housing, retrofitting existing homes, and building renewable energy plants (all with union labor).

In a word, it's time for us to embrace a new social contract and a Green New Deal.

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