Rarely in American history have workers faced such challenges as they do in 2020.
On this Labor Day, in the middle of a pandemic, uncertainty over job security for many employees is exceeded only by the hazard of showing up for work.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment announced this week that it had logged only 5,837 regular initial unemployment claims for the week ending Aug. 29, the lowest figure since COVID-19 appeared in the state in March. This is what passes for good labor news these days — it sure beats the more than 104,000 who applied for initial claims one horrific week in mid-April, but it’s still way above the weekly average of 1,900 in 2019, and it doesn’t even include many thousands of unemployed gig workers and independent contractors, who must apply for unemployment benefits through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
Colorado’s unemployment rate is down from its April peak of 12.2%, but as of July it was still about triple the February figure of 2.5%. Many observers worry that all this loss of work will soon translate into a cascade of missed rent payments and evictions.
Employment conditions in the nation as a whole are at least as alarming. The unemployment rate fell to 8.4% in August, down from 10.2% in July, though that’s still more than twice the average unemployment rate through 2019. Employees who still have jobs and are lucky enough to work from home often grapple with the adverse mental health effects of isolation. Those who perform the type of labor that requires an on-site presence face increased susceptibility to infection. Health care workers have been especially hard-hit. A database compiled by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian US found that by mid-August more than 900 health care workers had died due to COVID-19. Worse, 62% of the deceased were people of color, and similar inequities are found in other kinds of jobs that have proved vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as meatpacking, certain retail and other low-wage positions.
In Colorado, 2020 has also, amid the devastation, brought some good news for workers.
Democrats in the Legislature have long tried to establish a statewide paid family and medical leave program. The COVID-19 crisis at least helped them succeed in passing a bill that mandates some paid sick time. About 40% of Coloradans lack guaranteed sick leave, and many of them work in restaurant, retail and service industry jobs — positions that put them in contact with members of the public and leave them more vulnerable to infection. But starting next year, almost all Colorado workers will be able to earn up to six days of sick leave.
The bill fell far short of the guaranteed paid leave program many Democrats had preferred. But advocates succeeded in getting a more comprehensive set of benefits on the November ballot, and that measure, Proposition 118 (formerly known as Initiative 283), would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program.
Here is what the program would do: It would provide workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave when the worker experiences, or is caring for a family member who is experiencing, a serious health condition, or when caring for a new child, or if needed in relation to a family member’s military deployment. An extra four weeks of paid leave would be available in the case of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. The program would come with substantial costs and a whole new bureaucracy — a division of family and medical leave insurance in the Department of Labor and Employment — but it would be paid for as an enterprise from business and wage-earner contributions.
Opponents of the measure, such as the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, object to what they characterize as an undue tax increase on workers. To the extent businesses are actually looking out for employee interests, their concerns are legitimate but misplaced. The far greater hardship for the estimated 2.6 million Coloradans expected to benefit from the program comes when they’re faced with a medical emergency and are forced to make the impossible choice between maintaining an income by going to work or taking care of a loved one who is seriously ill.
Congress established Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894. But the movement it acknowledged, which honored the social and economic achievements of workers in the United States, had been gaining popularity in state governments, and Colorado was among the first five states, in 1887, to adopt Labor Day by legislative action.
Gestures like the paid family leave proposal advance Colorado’s legacy of worker appreciation, which on this Labor Day is worth celebrating.