Publication Date: March 17, 2020
By: Zoë Baird, CEO and President, Markle Foundation & Paige Shevlin, Director Policy and National Initiatives, Markle Foundation
COVID-19 is walloping low-wage workers even if they don’t get sick, and incomes will continue to decline for at least a couple of months as the nation grapples with a halt to economic activity. On top of globalization and automation, the most vulnerable now have to deal with the impact of social distancing that takes away their jobs and their business opportunity.
We need to use this crisis to provide a Stimulus for American Opportunity with investment in online learning of in-demand skills to improve careers at the same time we try to stimulate the economy overall. Without this, the built-in inequalities will be multiplied, and middle- to lower-income Americans left even further behind.
This stimulus starts with expanding the social safety net, filing large gaps like those for gig workers and independent contractors who have not had unemployment benefits, and providing ready cash. Today, even relative to the last recession, more workers are not covered by unemployment protections offered only to employees. Some estimates suggest that there are as many as 68 million independent contractors and gig economy workers. There have already been good proposals put forward to expand unemployment insurance to these workers as well as calls for action on the part of gig economy employers to protect their workers.
But that is far short of what is needed to prevent widening inequality.
As education and training institutions are being compelled to offer their programming remotely, we could finally make significant progress on the promise of the internet to deliver low-cost and high-quality adult education that has to date been unmet. This is an important time to make investments in making this training affordable and accessible for adult workers. We need to help them to gain new skills now, to open up opportunities for better jobs when they return to the workforce and create greater resiliency in the next similar event.
Wages have stagnated for most workers for the past few decades and the trend toward automation and digitalization of jobs has been ongoing, factors that may be accelerated by the changes businesses are adopting to mitigate the impact of the virus outbreak. For example, employers may take the opportunity to increase investments in artificial intelligence and other technologies that meet immediate needs and in the future make their business less vulnerable to the health of workers. Worker power has been eroded and a wide variety of policies are needed to correct the imbalance and put workers first. One important step toward this is giving people the opportunity to gain new skills that will help them stay up to date with technology needs in their current job or to move into a different career.
Education institutions have begun shifting toward remote and online options to support social distancing recommendations. This will accelerate the innovations we need to see in education and training, but raises the question as to who will be able to benefit and take advantage of these programs? Will the most vulnerable be included? Will schedules be flexible to accommodate the ways in which people are balancing their family demands, such as child-care, part-time work, and learning from home?
To scale training that meets the needs of workers right now, Congress needs to make addressing the inequality of job opportunity part of the stimulus discussions. A Stimulus for American Opportunity would both provide funding for people to pay for training and support quality programs to take more innovative approaches.
Adding a training allowance to unemployment insurance would help people to be able to afford programs. Partnering with governors to update their policies on what kinds of training programs are allowed to be covered for workers on unemployment insurance would make sure that individuals can access the right kinds of programs for their needs.
A training allowance should be paired with innovation funding to enable education institutions to develop programs that people can access remotely and flexibly. Funding should go to education institutions that have experience in getting results and can scale high-quality programs quickly, with some funding for more innovation and experimentation that will help to ensure a wider array of flexible programs in the future.
This unexpected crisis also presents an important opportunity to learn. Thousands of high school and university students are being placed in a range of online learning experiences and there should be funding to study these experiments. What we learn from this forced distancing of students, could change the way we provide training and how we experience education in the future.
We have a unique opportunity to catalyze affordable and flexible learning for adults over the life of their careers. It would fulfil the imperative to go beyond the essential income support to also provide workers with greater ability to succeed in advantageous careers. Let’s make this difficult time into an opportunity for investment in our nation’s greatest asset – our people.