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COVID & Unemployment

Can federal aid help bring back laid-off state and local government workers?

Mitchell Hartman Feb 19, 2021
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A city employee reminds a woman to wear her face mask on Sept. 7, 2020 in Manhattan Beach, California, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

Can federal aid help bring back laid-off state and local government workers?

Mitchell Hartman Feb 19, 2021
Heard on:
A city employee reminds a woman to wear her face mask on Sept. 7, 2020 in Manhattan Beach, California, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images
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Of the $1.9 trillion in COVID relief that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are proposing, $350 billion is slated for state and local governments.

That’s to help them make up for lost tax revenue, beef up services for those in need and get state and local government employees back to work.

More than a million of them have been furloughed or laid off and still aren’t back on the payroll.

Lavonne Pledger, 34, is a single dad with two teenagers living in Norfolk, Virginia. In March, the city closed the rec center where he ran youth programs.

“Up until June we were working virtually. And then I was furloughed,” Pledger said, with no pay or benefits.

Then in December, he and more than 50 other city employees got laid of permanently.

“I have not been doing super-great,” Pledger said. “I live in public housing. I got promoted to my full-time position and I was in the process of purchasing a home as a homeowner and having that kind of equity. Clearly that fell through.”

Pledger has a lot of company, said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“We have lost over 1.3 million public service jobs,” Saunders said. “And a high percentage are people of color and women.”

Those layoffs work out to about 1 in 6 state and local government workers before the pandemic, said Michael Leachman at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

“It’s much more job loss than happened in the Great Recession — which was the Great Recession, right?” he said.

And part of the reason governments are cutting jobs is the same as it was then, Leachman said: falling tax revenues because businesses have closed and fewer people have been working.

Also, there’s the pandemic itself. Schools closed for in-person learning didn’t need as many teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

“As schools and colleges and universities go back to normal operations, those employees will be needed to be hired again,” Leachman said.

But without hundreds of billions in new federal aid, state and local governments won’t have the money to do that, said Julia Wolfe at the Economic Policy Institute.

“Many of them will be tempted to pursue austerity — the same mistake that they made last time around, in the Great Recession,” Wolfe said, after which it took years to restore public sector employment.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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