Gilda Z. Jacobs: COVID-19 has turned life upside-down, exposed how low-income workers are treated

April 11, 2020 7:21 am

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They say that the emotions we’re experiencing as a result of COVID-19 are akin to grief. Some are experiencing real grief over lost loved ones. Many are experiencing grief over losing the “normal life” we were living a few weeks ago. 

I’m experiencing grief over what Michigan could have been doing since the Great Recession to make sure everyone living in this state had a fair shot. I’m experiencing grief — specifically the “anger” stage — that wealthy individuals and big corporations were granted the grace they needed over that time while 43% of households in this state weren’t able to make ends meet even before the COVID-19 crisis began.

If you feel like this crisis has turned our world upside-down, you’re right, in a way.

As a CEO who wants to make sure the Michigan League for Public Policy’s staff are able to do their work remotely, that payroll can be processed, that folks can balance their health, children, workload and life, I am so struck by the irony of the “upside-downness” that COVID-19 has exposed.

So many of our state’s essential workers, including child care workers, home health aides, nurse’s aides, delivery persons, shelf stockers and farm workers (just to mention a few), are the very people who are often paid the least, who lack decent health insurance and access to health care, who rely on an inadequate public transportation system, who earn no paid sick time, who live in food deserts, and who often are people of color.

COVID-19 hasn’t created the upside-down system these workers are trapped in, however. That system has been in place for a long time, and despite the many efforts the League and our allies have made over the decades, there is still so much to be done to make sure our state is fair and just for all who live here.

I hope and pray that this crisis serves as an opportunity for us to first thank the thousands of people who risk their health to help all of us not just now, but always, and to recognize that our society can’t exist without them. They keep us, our children and our parents safe.

And next, in the coming days, weeks and months it is imperative that we make sure that these folks earn a living wage, have access to affordable, equitable health care, and that they feel safe and secure in the state that relies so much on their hard work.

We applaud the actions that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her administration have taken so far to address the needs of Michiganders. The bipartisan federal stimulus law, too, is going a long way to help workers, businesses and communities.

And the League is proposing, through a series of COVID-19 policy briefs, some additional measures that can address the most pressing problems this crisis has created. Moving forward, we hope many of these measures will be made permanent.

Our grief as a state and a nation will continue for some time. But rather than dwell in a state of anger — or worse, denial — over the way our most essential workers and their families have been treated over the years, we must come together and build a system that works for them.

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Gilda Z. Jacobs
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Gilda Z. Jacobs has dedicated her life to helping others, working as an educator, helping provide housing for people with disabilities, serving in state and local government for 30 years, including 12 in the Michigan Legislature. She is the Michigan League for Public Policy's former President and CEO.