Legislature must prioritize essential worker pay

By Graham Trainor

When the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed earlier this year, it signaled a new direction for our nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. ARPA is the shot in the arm this country needed, and it could not have come soon enough. For over a year workers have shouldered the massive burden of the pandemic. And yet, as they have been called heroes by politicians, bosses and CEOs, the actions and support for essential and frontline workers has been anything but heroic. 

As part of ARPA, Oregon will receive billions in federal dollars to help Oregonians through the rest of the pandemic. The funds are intended, in part, to support frontline and essential workers as a way to honor them for the 14 months of hell they have endured. This is an opportunity for our state to put words into action and invest in the heroic workers who have kept our communities both functioning and safe since Day One of the pandemic. As any Oregonian knows, this year has been especially difficult due to historic wildfires that slashed apart wide swaths of our state. We need to step up for everyone who has stood up for us. 

Recently, the CDC upended workplace practices by announcing that vaccinated individuals can be unmasked indoors. This overnight and abrupt change has the potential to have negative impacts on immunocompromised workers who cannot be vaccinated, adding to the growing concern regarding breakthrough cases (COVID-19 cases contracted by fully vaccinated individuals) and the potential transmission from vaccinated individuals to those who cannot be vaccinated yet, like children. Our state must recognize the undue burden this change continues to place on frontline and essential workers and ensure OR-OSHA protections are strengthened, workers have access to essential worker pay, and provide additional protections for immunocompromised workers. The Oregon Health Authority also has the ability to and should frequently inform the public about the impacts of the CDC’s new guidelines as they pertain to vaccination rates and breakthrough cases.

Working people and families have kept Oregon running through more than a year of uncertainty. Among frontline and essential workers, workers of color are overrepresented: Nearly a third are Black workers and close to 40% are Latinx workers. What is also very telling is that nearly half of essential workers do not even earn a living wage. They have put their lives on the line to support themselves and their families, often incurring additional costs to keep working in person when many of us were able to work from home. They have been forced into making sacrifices no one should have to make in order to earn a living. 

Our frontline and essential workers deserve better. They deserve to be honored and supported—which is exactly what some of the funding from the ARPA is supposed to be used for. Right now, Oregon lawmakers are deciding how to use those funds, and there are two very different approaches being considered. One would put these dollars into the hands of the diverse frontline and essential workers, which means those dollars go right back into Oregon’s economy, support working families, and show overdue respect to the people who have kept us moving since March 2020. The other approach would put disproportionate amounts of these federal dollars into reserves instead. The first approach is widely supported. According to a survey conducted last year, a majority of Americans believe that frontline workers should receive hazard pay. 

The sacrifices and toil by frontline and essential workers have not only kept our state running, they have also kept us safe. Oregon has consistently ranked among states with the fewest COVID-19 cases in the country. Our success is all thanks to the workers who not only clocked in each day but did so as safely as they could. They wore masks, fought hard for policies to make work safe, and then had to fight even harder for prioritization in our state’s vaccination schedule. 

When the pandemic is all but a memory, I hope our lawmakers can be proud that they decided to stand up for the people who carried us through it all. To spend this long fighting for safety and to be vaccinated just to be safe enough to go to work is truly heroic. Let’s do our heroes justice by putting essential workers who have kept us safe, fed, clean and healthy first. Let’s make sure that Oregon’s legacy during this time is one to be proud of.

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