By Ron Ruggiero, President, SEIU Local 105
We are experiencing a total system collapse in America right now. We are only a few weeks into the Coronavirus pandemic, and the economy, our healthcare system, and our national business and political leadership are collapsing before our very eyes.
How could this happen so quickly? As progressives have been warning for decades: these systems were already broken. Now, with the spotlight of the coronavirus shining brightly upon them, we can all see just how broken everything is.
Let’s start with the economy. We told America that a low-wage economy with a disappearing middle-class and extreme inequality was a very bad idea. Now, our broken economy is actually helping the coronavirus spread.
One-quarter of American workers lack access to any paid sick time at all. In the critical service sector, one-half doesn’t have it. This forces a sick worker to make the horrible decision of staying home and protecting others from illness or go to work so they can pay their rent. This terrible “choice” has always existed, but during a pandemic, it becomes a public health catastrophe.
The same applies to wages. The proliferation of low-wage work and the assault on the middle class has left most Americans with little or no safety net. Almost 40% of Americans cannot handle a $400 emergency. Where I live in Colorado, the median wage is the same as it was in 1985 when adjusted for inflation.
The “middle-class squeeze” of stagnant wages and skyrocketing cost of housing, healthcare, and childcare has left most working Americans living paycheck to paycheck. This means most of us cannot handle the economic shock caused by the coronavirus. The economic catastrophe is hitting all at once on a population that has no cushion.
Let’s turn to healthcare. Almost one-half of Americans are either uninsured or underinsured. One-half. In a normal year, a recent study found that 68,000 of our fellow Americans die because of this. In a pandemic, having one-half of your co-workers, friends, and neighbors unable to afford medical care is a disaster-in-the-making. This is all despite the fact that we spend about double per capita on healthcare than all those other countries that provide universal healthcare.
Our high cost of healthcare also didn’t buy us much preparedness for this pandemic. Only a few weeks into this crisis, and nurses and other healthcare workers are already wearing garbage bags as improvised Personal Protective Equipment.
Here in Colorado, we know a home care provider who is using paper towels to make a mask. Let that sink in. Barely into this pandemic, and we are risking the health, and lives, of front-line healthcare workers because they don’t have enough N95 masks, face shields, and the other PPE equipment they need and deserve.
Finally, it’s time to talk about our political and business leadership. CEO’s of massive corporations still refuse to provide paid sick leave to their employees in the middle of a national crisis caused by a lethal pandemic. This isn’t just the McDonald’s and Burger Kings of the world. Corporate lobbyists made sure healthcare workers were excluded from the recent paid sick leave bill.
Hell, they made sure all companies with more than 500 employees were excluded. We are in a war with the coronavirus, and our “business leaders” are choosing profits first.
Our political leaders of both parties are failing us too. The most recent Coronavirus Relief Package provides trillions in corporate bailout and Wall Street protection and is not doing enough for our people. Canada just decided to send everyone $2,000 a month for four months. We’re getting a one-time $1,200 check. Republicans continue to their bidding for the wealthy and big corporations as they always have done. On the Democratic side, too many are torn between serving the big donors or the people. Others care but don’t know enough how to have a street fight with Republicans and win. But, at least some Democrats are trying.
None of this had to be this bad. These systems are all broken, and now collapsing, because of the record inequality that has built up over the last 50 years. And, here’s another kicker. Extreme inequality has hurt us all: no matter the color of our skin, where we come from, or what zip code we live in. But, because of structural racism—every single measure and statistic I’ve referenced is worse for people of color. Every. Single. One.
So, why are wages stagnant? Why do half of us lack adequate healthcare? Why do most of us live paycheck to paycheck? It’s not just greed. It’s that working people have little power to get their fair share of the wealth we create. It’s because we have busted unions for decades now, and only 6% of workers in the private sector have a union. Our rigged political system allows wealthy and corporate donors to mostly get what they want, and working people get some leftovers.
Extreme inequality is killing us. With what Jeff Bezos makes in one month, we could purchase over 261,000 ventilators. Hospitals in all of America have only 170,000. Here in Colorado, we have ten billionaires worth $50 billion. How many ventilators could they buy right now?
That’s why none of this had to be like this. We can afford to pay all workers a decent wage. Everyone could have healthcare. Everyone could have paid sick time. Our front-line healthcare workers could have all the PPE they need to protect themselves. So could grocery workers and janitors. Every worker could have what they need to be safe at work right now.
Instead, America chose extreme inequality, more billionaires, and record corporate profits. But, Americans didn’t choose this. A broken political system dominated by the wealthy and big corporations did. That broken system has led to all of our other broken systems that are now collapsing before our very eyes. Let’s choose differently. Let’s act like our lives depend on it, because they do. And, let’s start today.