The thin line

Posted 4/2/20

by Pete Mazzaccaro There is so much by which to be utterly gobsmacked right now. COVID-19, a microscopic virus -- a deadly, invisible strand of RNA -- has upended global health and much of the …

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The thin line

Posted

by Pete Mazzaccaro

There is so much by which to be utterly gobsmacked right now.

COVID-19, a microscopic virus -- a deadly, invisible strand of RNA -- has upended global health and much of the world’s economy in a matter of weeks. Today, people find themselves sheltering at home, allowed only limited trips to the grocery store, hardware store and the occasional outing for takeout. The world has been brought to its knees.

What struck me last week as this unfolded, however, is how little it takes to completely upend life for so many workers. In Pennsylvania, more than half a million residents applied for unemployment benefits not much more than a week after Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stay-at-home order for state residents. It was a large chunk of the 3.3 million U.S. citizens who did the same. (Today, April 2, it was reported that double that number -- 6.6 million -- filed for unemployment in the last week.)

In the past several days, we’ve continued to read about massive layoffs. The state let go of 2,500 part-time employees. The Franklin Institute laid off all part time employees and 36 percent of its staff. Every day there is news of more, and those who file for unemployment are just part of the picture as many gig-economy workers, independent workers and part timers don’t even qualify for unemployment benefits. (Fortunately, those workers are accounted for in the $2 trillion package passed by congress and signed by President Trump last week.)

It’s amazing, really, how precarious so many of our workplaces are and how fragile a big portion of the economy is. You routinely hear about how strapped the average American is – 40 percent couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency – but it’s also quite clear that many of our institutions and businesses are in the same boat. Many are left debilitated within a week – a single week. They have no capacity to be closed for even a short period, never mind the fact that life likely doesn’t have a chance of returning to normal for at least another month. And that would be optimistic.

One thing that is clear about this pandemic is that little is certain. Economists aren’t sure where unemployment will peak. Some say 10% is likely. Some say 20 to 30% is possible. Those are scary figures that would put us in great depression territory.

The aid package passed by Congress last week seems like a very solid start. Increasing the dollar amounts of unemployment payments, the length of time people can use them and extending that coverage to people not typically covered by unemployment insurance is an important part of the package – far more important than the $1,200 payments many people will receive.

A crisis like this is bound to dramatically change the way we do things in the future. I hope the precarious position in which we put so many members of the workforce is something we can find a way to change for the better. The present is frightening and unsustainable.

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