Labor Day is a time to recognize the achievements of workers and the broader labor movement. This year, essential workers are courageously keeping New Jersey’s economy and communities running despite the current health crisis. Nevertheless, workers continue to encounter barriers to economic security and threats to their health and safety, as outlined in a new Labor Day report by New Jersey Policy Perspective. Moreover, the challenges faced by many families as they juggle caregiving and work have become increasingly untenable. These conditions have both highlighted and deepened social and economic disparities, as workers who are Black, Latinx, immigrant, and low-income are at disproportionately high risk of exposure to the health and economic harms of COVID-19.
COVID-19 Pandemic Compounds Existing Inequities
While COVID-19 has created unique challenges, including unprecedented unemployment and health and safety concerns, the impacts of the pandemic deepen persistent disparities. Inequities in wealth, income, employment, and health, for example, all existed even before the current crisis. In addition, people of color are disproportionately represented among frontline workers who risk their health and safety every day during the pandemic. Black workers, for example, make up only 12.4 percent of New Jersey’s workforce, but represent 19.5 percent of all frontline workers.
Before the onset of COVID-19, many New Jersey households were already struggling to afford basic needs. One factor driving income inequality is the near stagnation of hourly wages for most New Jersey workers. Wage growth for New Jersey’s workers remains both slow and uneven, as hourly wages have not kept pace with productivity. Between 1979 and 2016, productivity in New Jersey grew 80.4 percent, while median hourly compensation grew just 25.8 percent.
Wage growth for the state’s highest earners has far outpaced that of middle- and low-income workers since 1979. Moreover, racial disparities in wages not only persisted, but have widened over the last four decades. In 2019, the median hourly wage among white workers in New Jersey was $25.85, approximately 1.5 times the median wage among Black ($17.32) and Latinx workers ($17.01).
While unemployment skyrocketed across all racial and ethnic groups since the onset of COVID-19, people of color continue to experience unemployment at a higher rate than white people both before and during the pandemic. Further, many of New Jersey’s workers, including certain immigrants and their families, have been excluded from several forms of economic relief, including federal stimulus payments under the CARES Act and unemployment insurance.
How New Jersey Protect Workers and Improve Economic Security
Workers who face unsafe conditions have little recourse and are often met with the difficult decision of risking their income or jeopardizing their health and safety. In the absence of adequate federal support and mandates, it is critical that the state government provide clear guidelines, strong enforcement, and economic relief to protect workers. In circumstances where adequate safety precautions are not taken, safeguards should be in place to prevent income loss or retaliation against workers.
By making workplaces safer, lawmakers can better protect public health for all New Jerseyans. Lawmakers are currently considering several bills that would expand paid sick leave, create new avenues to address violations of health and safety laws, and clarify workers’ right to receive unemployment if leaving a job due to health and safety concerns. In addition, lawmakers can boost economic security and
the state’s recovery from the current crisis by strengthening social safety net programs for low wage workers and ensuring sufficient income replacement for those who have lost employment.
Workers should not have to choose between feeding their families and engaging in unsafe work that jeopardizes their health, but that is precisely the position many New Jerseyans find themselves in due to low wages and a lack of strong worker protections. In these challenging times, it is especially important that workers’ rights are not only protected, but expanded, and that there is a strong safety net for those who need it most. This Labor Day, New Jersey can honor workers by advancing policies that support worker rights, public health, and economic security both during and beyond the current crisis.