Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | State and local officials have initiated many measures to mitigate the consequences of the coronavirus. However, there is still much more for them to do.
The Trump administration has failed the American people to an astonishing extent during the current pandemic crisis. Failed to prepare, failed to take the threat seriously, failed to direct resources where they’re needed, and failed to tell the truth. While Congress has provided some aid to state and local governments in relief packages, given the enormous fiscal challenges already underway, it will not go nearly far enough to help offset the health and economic fallout of Covid-19.
The federal government is the only entity with the sufficient scale and resources to do what’s needed, and yet those efforts continue to be lackluster at best. Ultimately, Congress should pass a new aid package that provides states and localities with $500 billion—more than triple the amount already authorized.
Until then, as state and local leaders find themselves largely on their own, they can and should continue to exercise their powers to protect public health and secure their economies as much as possible at this time.
History provides an example of the impact they can have: At the onset of the 1918 Spanish flu, Philadelphia officials held a parade to support the war effort, while officials in St. Louis shut everything down immediately, slowing the flu’s spread, effectively “flattening the curve” and saving thousands of lives.
Already two states’ divergent paths in 2020 are reminiscent of 1918. California had just over 900 confirmed cases when its shelter-in-place took effect on March 19. New York’s order took effect on March 22, with over 16,000 confirmed cases. Now, New York has more than 195,000 reported cases, and California has just over 24,000.
Economic needs are inextricably intertwined with public health, making state and local interventions like stay-at-home orders essential. The handful of states without them should take action immediately or their eventual numbers will show the tragedy of failing to do so. States should also keep these orders in place as long as is needed for public health, even in the face of pressure from the Trump administration or the business community. But despite some strong actions to date, state and local leaders can still go much further. How? The list is long.
Enforce Non-Essential Business Closures
States and locals need to enforce stay-home orders with non-essential businesses. Many remain operational, and workers struggle to determine what to do when their place of business unlawfully remains open. Washington created an online form for people to report suspected violations. The Michigan attorney general has sent businesses cease and desist letters; several other attorneys general have done the same. And for essential businesses, states and localities should mandate wearing of masks, social distancing and other safety measures, as some municipalities have done.
Paid Sick and Family Leave
Paid sick leave has been shown to reduce spread of illness. Nearly a dozen states, and even more localities, passed paid sick leave before the Covid-19 pandemic, albeit for shorter time periods. Recently passed federal legislation that included paid leave provisions excluded far too many workers, like anyone at a company with more than 500 employees. New York, San Jose and, to a more limited extent, Colorado, have enacted forms of paid sick leave laws to fill in gaps in federal legislation.
Relatedly, states should also prevent retaliation against workers who take leave to care for family with the virus, like Michigan did.
Health Care Access
State and local leaders should facilitate coronavirus testing and access to health care; for example, mandate elimination of co-payments for testing and prohibit insurance cutoffs. Washington’s Insurance Commissioner has ordered health insurers to expand telehealth, testing coverage and extend grace periods for premiums.
Workplace Safety Protection
More than 20 states have the ability to regulate workplace safety and health, allowing them to enact protective emergency rules and actively enforce existing law, including requirements regarding the provision of personal protective equipment. For states and localities where workplace safety is federally regulated, they can still pass laws prohibiting retaliation against workers who raise safety concerns, similar to what has been proposed in New York City.
Collection and Publication of Data on Covid-19 fatalities
State health departments should investigate, track and publish real time demographic data (e.g. age, race and gender), occupation and place of work for all Covid-19 related deaths. This data will be critical for identifying racial and other disparities among the pandemic's victims. It will also help identify industries or particular workplaces with likely occupational exposure, particularly important given the recent announcement by the Trump administration that employers outside of the health care industry won’t generally be required to record coronavirus cases among their workers.
With many economic sectors grinding to a near complete halt, it’s essential to address people’s economic short- and long-term needs. Recent federal legislation greatly increased access to unemployment insurance (UI). But now it’s up to states to make UI more available by waiving waiting periods, which at least 35 states have done; removing job-seeking requirements, as at least 27 states have done; and expanding benefit duration like Michigan and Georgia have. Additionally, states will have to face the challenge of unprecedented claim volume, and identify solutions to enable their systems and infrastructure to handle record volumes.
States should also help prevent layoffs, through use of workshare programs, which allow employers to move people to part-time work, and employees receive unemployment benefits for the balance of time.
Relatedly, leaders should declare moratoriums on evictions and utility cutoffs for electricity, water and internet access. They should also provide cash and food assistance for people however possible. Some jurisdictions, like Oregon and Chicago are using schools as food distribution centers for children who receive meals through school and in some cases, their families.
Communities with immigrant populations have particular needs, including multilingual materials about the coronavirus. Because of fear of deportation, immigrant communities may benefit from targeted outreach to encourage them to seek health care. Also, immigrants who are undocumented are ineligible for most other programs, so states and cities should create funds or programs open to them, similar to what Minneapolis did.
These measures are not unrealistic. Many of them have been taken in one or more jurisdictions and this particular moment calls for aggressive actions in order to achieve the best possible outcome. State and local leaders only need to decide if they want to be remembered like the leaders of 1918 Philadelphia or St. Louis.
Terri Gerstein is the director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. Naomi Walker is the Director of the EARN Network at the Economic Policy Institute.
NEXT STORY: Five Years of Route Fifty