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46 nonprofits on how to help working families through the pandemic fallout | COMMENTARY

Johns Hopkins University food service workers from Unite Here Local 7 staged an action earlier this month with social distancing to protest that financial relief pay which was promised by the university has not materialized yet. The workers held signs saying "We Are Essential."
Johns Hopkins University food service workers from Unite Here Local 7 staged an action earlier this month with social distancing to protest that financial relief pay which was promised by the university has not materialized yet. The workers held signs saying "We Are Essential." (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The coronavirus outbreak is affecting everyone but is falling hardest on those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Before the pandemic, too many of us were already living from paycheck to paycheck, one car repair or overdraft fee away from financial disaster.

Now, think about the millions of people in the service economy who are suddenly without a paycheck, or the hourly workers putting their lives on the line — the health aides working in nursing homes and hospitals, the people stocking the shelves in the grocery stores and so many others — to meet the larger communities’ basic needs. How we respond to this extraordinary event defines us and reveals our values.

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Some limited relief is on the way from Washington. And in Maryland, state leaders acted quickly to authorize some emergency help, while Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order to prevent the spread of the virus and protect Marylanders from price gouging, utility shut-offs, evictions, repossessions and foreclosures.

But much more needs to be done to protect working families and address persistent economic inequities here.

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Nearly 50 advocacy organizations and nonprofits representing hundreds of thousands of people around the state have come together to establish a working families policy agenda to help Maryland respond to and recover from the pandemic. We are calling on Governor Hogan and leaders of the General Assembly to act soon on these ideas. Our state’s most vulnerable residents are facing economic ruin stemming from a public health crisis beyond their control. Drastic intervention is necessary immediately to prevent long-term negative effects on the state as a whole.

We must start by expanding health care access to everyone. The state should make sure that COVID-19 testing and treatment is free and available to all, regardless of insurance status, language, race, country of origin or immigration status. We should extend eligibility for Medicaid, and we should ensure there will be no immigration status check and no ICE involvement in COVID-19 testing or treatment — to encourage all immigrants to get tested and treated.

The state must continue to collect and report COVID-19 data based on race and ethnicity. Early data is showing that the disease is disproportionately hitting minority communities, and we must be able to craft appropriate responses.

While progress has been made by both the state and federal government, too many workers in the state still do not have access to paid sick leave; we must expand current state law to give this vital benefit to all workers, along with a COVID-related paid family leave policy.

To help people stay in their homes, we should suspend all rent transactions for 90 days and provide financial relief to rental property owners who experience hardship. More is needed to help people who are homeless and at high risk of exposure to the virus. In some cases, we should find temporary homes for them — in empty hotels and motels, for example.

We must also find a way to protect lives by further reducing the number of people being held in confinement — prisons, jails and youth facilities. Without this step, men, women and youth may needlessly be exposed to the virus.

The cancellation of classes in public schools and the shift to online learning has hurt many working families. Too many young people, particularly African Americans and Latinos, live in homes that lack reliable access to the internet, which makes it all but impossible for them to take part in online learning. We must act now to expand access to the internet and to the tools students need, such as laptops or tablets.

Working people in Maryland are particularly vulnerable during this crisis. It’s up to state leaders to help them weather this once-in-a-lifetime storm. We are urging the General Assembly to find a safe way to reconvene and establish policies to provide for quick relief, help Marylanders recover, and set the stage for long-term reform to address systemic problems that hurt low-income families.

While we’re concerned about protecting ourselves and our families in this time of crisis, we cannot simply hope that Marylanders survive this pandemic health-wise and financially. It’s time for our elected leaders to act to protect our working families.

Lisa Brown (lisabb@1199.org) is executive vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Maryland/DC Region. John Nethercut (nethercutj@publicjustice.org) is executive director of the Public Justice Center. Gustavo Torres (gtorres@wearecasa.org) is executive director of CASA. This op-ed is based on a letter endorsed and signed by 46 organizations across Maryland.

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