The power of collective action
Employees Have Walked Out at Instacart and Amazon Over Hazardous Working Conditions
On-demand gig workers have been deemed “essential,” but have not received equipment or protections to ensure their health and safety.
Cashing in on COVID
With the economy stuttering, legislation has passed to stimulate recovery and aid small businesses. Will it be enough?
Just as artist Aaron Bowersock was laid off from his UX designer job and preparing to work as a stay-at-home art dad, the coronavirus outbreak took over Seattle.
The city’s Comic Con was canceled, which garners a huge portion of Bowersock’s business, PopMuertos’, income. Bowersock isn’t alone in this surge of financial losses. As COVID-19 spreads across the United States, shutting down whole cities in its path, individuals and independent businesses are struggling to survive.
With the economy coming to a grinding halt, governments across the globe are rushing to pass vital legislation to prevent businesses from shuttering their doors permanently. After a whirlwind of back and forth on the hill—including bill failure, long fights about how many millions in bailout money to give to airlines, and whether those people too poor to pay income tax would be included in the stimulus package at all—congress was finally able to agree on some relief.
As relief bills are pushed through, advocates believe that the legislation doesn’t extend far enough.
“What small businesses need right now isn’t necessarily loans that contribute to whatever controlled debt that they are experiencing. They need cash and grants to be able to pay their workers, pay their commercial rent, to basically keep their doors open because right now they’re really struggling,” says Awesta Sarkash, Small Business Majority’s government affairs manager. “We had one small business owner who had to lay off 100 employees, and if he had access to this immediate stimulus release that wouldn’t be the case.”
And it’s not only small businesses that need more from the government right now. According to Saru Jayaraman, president of the advocacy organization One Fair Wage—which is currently providing cash assistance to restaurant workers, car service drivers, delivery workers, personal service workers and more who need the money they aren’t getting to survive—actions related to unemployment insurance and paid sick leave are not sufficient either.
“The real issue of this moment is that you’ve got millions of workers who’ve been laid off,” Jayaraman tells Supermaker in a phone conversation. “In a functional system, these workers would’ve been paid livable wages and then unemployment insurance would’ve been measured on those livable wages. Instead, [some of] these [service] workers [are making] a federal minimum wage of $2.13 plus tips.” She argues that unemployment insurance needs to be modified to assume every worker is paid $15 per hour.
Small businesses and service workers aren’t the only ones hardest hit. Advocacy group MusicPortland conducted a survey within the first few days of the coronavirus crisis hitting Oregon and found that musicians had already lost $4 million in income—with 30% of those artists having lost monies that usually make up 75% or more of their income.
“If we come out the end of this alive but only have corporate, packaged music coming to us—and all of our independent infrastructure is gone—that will be a very sad thing,” says Meara McLaughlin, executive director of MusicPortland, lamenting what might happen if government doesn’t support independent artists.
As the government scrambles to provide working Americans support, emergency relief funds, many of them private, have reached nearly every professional sector in the U.S. Charity MusiCares is running a relief fund for musicians. One Fair Wage is providing cash assistance for service workers. Community organization Springboard for the Arts, which established a fund to support artists in Minnesota, has even produced a guide on how to start your own emergency relief fund to help struggling artists in your area.
Immigrants Rising, which provides educational and vocational services for undocumented youth, compiled a list of resources—including professional support—for undocumented folks to better understand their options during the pandemic. For nationwide and state-specific resources for undocumented immigrants, check out this link.
It’s no surprise that undocumented immigrants have limited access to government assistance, but even documented immigrants are scared to access government relief.
“I’ve heard from a lot of documented immigrants who say they are unlikely to take either unemployment or the cash benefit because it will hurt their applications for permanent residency or citizenship,” says Jayaraman. This is because a recent change to the Department of Homeland Security’s public charge rule allows the government to deny eligible visa applicants based upon past government assistance. “[The service] industry is pretty much screwed,” Jayaraman continues. “That’s why we started our emergency fund—because most of what’s out there is not enough."
“Certainly our emergency fund is not enough,” Jayaraman adds. “But we are doing our best to not just provide the money but invite workers into a community where they can support each other and get access to other resources as well.” As lawmakers fail to provide crucial support for service workers and local businesses, citizens like Jayaraman are feeling the pressure to step up and save their communities.
And, despite the air of uncertainty workers are embroiled in now, it’s the power of community that is keeping them strong. Seattle’s Comic Con was canceled, but gamers held a virtual convention instead, which helped Bowersock, the art dad from the top of our story, earn more profits than he receives from smaller shows.
Yet as the professional world shifts to digital, Bowersock has one more suggestion for the powers that be: he believes the government should then support that move with free internet. “If the entire economy, or what’s left of the working economy, is dependent on the internet,” he says, “then there should be municipal broadband.” As the government battles back and forth on relief, the people can only hope their concerns are heard.