In this extraordinary period of high anxiety and uncertainty, we’re all making tough decisions to reduce the risk that COVID-19 will spread among our employees, colleagues, friends, and families.
Hourly and low-wage workers face significant challenges every day, and especially in times of crisis. The vast majority can’t work at home and don’t receive health benefits through their jobs. They are our restaurant staff, hotel employees, frontline retail workers, and a wide range of gig workers.
The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating societal fault lines that were already fracturing the cohesion of our nation. These chasms, such as wage and income inequality, often determine whether people are able to keep themselves and their families safe, healthy, and financially secure.
That is why JFF is calling on business, education, and government leaders to take proactive measures to support the most vulnerable individuals and their families during this unprecedented time. Many across these sectors are doing just that. We applaud them and implore others in positions of influence to follow their lead.
In the private sector:
- Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, Google, and Facebook are paying frontline hourly workers, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, their normal wages even if their services aren’t required because thousands of employees are now working from home.
- Walmart and McDonald’s publicly committed to paying workers who are required to isolate themselves for the entire 14-day quarantine period.
- Darden Restaurants, which has more than 170,000 hourly workers in chains ranging from Capital Grille to Olive Garden, has agreed to start offering paid sick leave for employees, effective immediately. The new policy will be permanent.
Officials must recognize the need for an interrelated web of supports that provides income support, health care, child care, as well as food and housing security.
Meanwhile, postsecondary institutions that haven’t cancelled classes altogether have had to pivot to online learning full time. Unfortunately, digital access and digital literacy aren’t ubiquitous, and the most vulnerable learners are the ones most adversely impacted by the change. Every institution of higher learning should take a page from what these colleges are doing for affected students:
- Lorain County Community College in Ohio postponed in-person classes but is continuing to provide access to student services, including advising and tutoring—in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
- Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, Washington, has made laptops from its computer lab available for students to borrow, and it offers an online tutoring service.
- Berea College in Kentucky, a federally designated work college serving economically disadvantaged students who are required to work, canceled classes and sent students home but will continue to pay them through the end of the semester.
Policymakers Must Act Now
Federal and state policymakers need to act quickly to help the schools and employers—particularly small and midsize businesses—that are taking steps to support their students and employees. We also need solutions for the individuals and families whose health and livelihoods are most at risk.
Officials must recognize the need for an interrelated web of supports that provides income support, health care, child care, as well as food and housing security. Congress is working on passing a coronavirus bill—but the aid can’t come soon enough. Any legislative action must include immediate relief for those most impacted, including cash assistance—an idea that has quickly gained bipartisan support—and expanded unemployment insurance benefits for those who lose their jobs as businesses shut their doors.
It is also during this time of crisis that we should test bold new approaches. While ideas such as Universal Basic Income have long been debated in theory, now’s the time to put them to the test. A one-time infusion of cash might not be enough to keep workers and families afloat in a pandemic that could have ripple effects lasting many months, and more sustained supports should be explored.
The fault lines won’t fade anytime soon. As officials address the immediate crisis, they should give special consideration to those individuals, families, industry sectors, and communities most likely to be affected by extended periods of medical, economic, and social disruption.
JFF is calling on business, education, and government leaders to take proactive measures to support the most vulnerable individuals and their families during this unprecedented time.
What JFF Is Doing
We at JFF, like people everywhere, are grappling with how to respond to the coronavirus. We have instituted a work-from-home policy to protect our employees and help “flatten the curve” while still supporting our partners.
Joining other action-oriented leaders, our CEO Maria Flynn signed on to "#LeadBoldly," a letter calling on organizations and individuals to do as much as they can to reduce the number of infections.
We also announced that ETF@JFFLabs, our impact investment fund, will defer all interest payments due to the fund from our portfolio companies. We will work with the companies in which we have investments to assess their and their workers' needs. We hope this helps give the entrepreneurs who run those companies the flexibility and confidence to do what’s best for their workers, their customers, and their communities. We encourage other like-minded investors to take similar courses of action, if they’re able to do so.
As we all wrestle with COVID-19, we need to work together and take a shared responsibility for the most vulnerable workers, students, and families. But we also need to look beyond the immediate emergency and find long-term ways to fortify economic advancement for everyone to ensure we continue building a future that works.