Op-ed: The Road to Recovery Goes through the Frontlines

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us, and though our immediate future remains unclear, one thing is for certain — we are all in this together.  

It saddens me to witness the politicization of this crisis. What should be a joint struggle for the greater good has become a contentious debate pitting lives against livelihoods. For some, the public health impact is the priority. For others, the social and economic impacts take precedence. But regardless of how we each feel, we must all recognize that we all have a stake in how we move forward. 

Those of us in government have a duty to serve the public as best as we can, and to ensure that the cure – social distancing and stay-at-home orders – does not cause more harm than the disease itself. Our best policies moving forward must include input from our workers who are operating on the frontlines of this crisis: nurses, EMTs, doctors, police, firefighters, delivery and postal workers, grocery store clerks, pharmacists, transit workers, in-home and nursing home caregivers, and maintenance and sanitation workers, among others. But of all the legislation that has been up for vote in Harrisburg, almost none of it has directly addressed worker safety – and by extension public safety. 

The voices of frontline workers have been ignored. Instead, since Pennsylvania’s state of emergency began, our docket has been dominated by special interests whose sole focus is to reopen the economy as soon as possible. When I tried to raise the question of workers’ access to UC benefits in a recent committee hearing, I was told it was not relevant to the bill about reopening the industry.

Any plan to reopen safely must account for the needs of our workers, especially those on the frontlines. When workers are at risk, the community is at risk. Ignoring their needs will only serve to prolong this social and economic distress; and worst of all, it will endanger more lives. We are operating with limited resources to safely handle this pandemic, and it is a mistake not to listen to frontline workers whose experience may lead us to the best solutions. 

Over the past two months, I have asked frontline workers, nurses and other health care professionals about the basic steps we can take to increase public health and economic stability. Their main points have been:

Support those most at risk

The highest-risk individuals are our frontline workers, the elderly and the infirm. We need priority testing for this group. Additionally, we need more PPE for first responders (EMT, firefighters, police, ER staff, etc.) and for those in high exposure occupations (such as transit workers, delivery and postal workers, grocery store workers, and public benefits offices).

Greater financial and social support system

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There will be more waves of outbreaks. Equal access to health care will provide our best defense in the long run to reduce the probability of severe exposures and community spread. Likewise, adequate and safe childcare is needed for when people get back to work.

We must improve support to the underfunded and understaffed Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation office. Disbursement of unemployment benefits must be quick and efficient, not slow and convoluted. If we give proper support to families and individuals who have lost income, they will in turn stimulate the economy. 

People need protection from losing their home, such as a temporary freeze on rent and mortgage payments without inflated balloon payments at the end of the deferment. Landlords and small businesses could be offered relief in the form of a tax credit.

Small business supports

Priority for the Paycheck Protection Program should be given to small businesses. PPP and small business loans should be available through small community banks, creating a win-win for local communities.

We also need small business programs to actually benefit small businesses. We cannot allow billions of dollars in SBA relief to go to big corporations. Mom & Pop stores are the ones operating on the thinnest margins, and as such, they belong in the front of the line.

Our chances of success in responding to this crisis depends upon us working with each other. We must respect that different people are experiencing the pandemic in different ways. For instance, rural counties do not have the same number of cases as we do in Philadelphia, but they also have less access to medical facilities. 

In this difficult time, please keep our frontline workers in mind. They are risking their own personal health and the health of their loved ones for us. Every one of them is making a sacrifice, and we must honor them by making sacrifices of our own. Let us all do what we can to lighten their load and ensure their efforts were not wasted. The road to recovery goes through the frontlines, but it is our burden to share.