Essential workers were praised for staying on the job during the coronavirus pandemic, but as the region moves more into an economic recovery, experts and advocates fear those workers might be left behind. How to help essential workers, especially those of color, who make up a number of the working poor, was part of a Regional Plan Association assembly discussion about how to equitably recover from the pandemic. The panel, that included U.S. Senator Cory Booker and U.S. Rep Andy Kim, both D-NJ, also directly discussed ways to correct inequities that existed before the pandemic. While there was an outpouring of support for essential workers during the darkest days of the pandemic, New Jersey even declared an essential workers heroes day in March, the warehouse and retail workers, janitors, housekeepers, food and package delivery workers still need to be lifted from the ranks of the working poor, according to members of the panel.
“Banging on pots doesn’t make them essential,” said Dr Herminia Palacio, former New York City deputy mayor for health and human services. “Their salaries aren’t essential, their benefits aren’t essential. How do we reorient resources, so we have predictable outcomes?” She warned that the window to change conditions and help these workers “is narrowing.” Panelists talked about how essential workers, especially people of color and women, were affected by higher death rates, economic and housing insecurity and other issues that threaten to leave them behind again unless action is taken. Legislation proposed by Booker could provide a federal renter’s tax credit to help workers who spend 30% or more of their take home pay on housing. The concept is similar to federal tax deductions homeowners now receive for state and local property taxes. “We can do something big and bold and make sure all our brave families can have a shot at a good home,” he said. “The hard reality is stagnant wages for working class people make it harder to make ends meet.”