The landscape is not as bleak as it might seem in the shadow of COVID-19. House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has just given low-wage workers reason to hope. She is reported to have said recently when asked about the state budget:
“Our priority right now is to get a handle on making sure that basic needs for our citizens are taken care of.”
What welcome news to low-wage workers who are so often short-changed as they try to be seen and heard above the din of lobbyists who wield much more influence on behalf of corporate interests. When did we last give the basic needs of workers “priority”?
The COVID-19 crisis is surely driving home the lesson that meeting the basic needs of workers serves all of our interests. Have we ever been more grateful that the ships and trucks are loaded and unloaded? That shelves are stocked? That our first responders are on the job? That medical, administrative and janitorial staff at every level of every medical facility are doing all they can to respond to our needs?
While most of us stay at home to tame the spread of the virus, many of our friends and neighbors put themselves at considerable risk of contracting the virus as they work to make sure life continues with as much normalcy as possible in these very abnormal times.
One of the peculiar abnormalities that we have been content to live with for too long is the knowledge that thousands of low-wage workers in this punishingly expensive state work more than a full day, often at more than one job, and still cannot pay for their most basic needs.
We have become accustomed to the fallout from not paying people who work a full day a living wage. We have watched our sidewalks and parks become the sites for encampments of those who have literally stopped being able to pay for a roof over their heads and food on the table. Yes, some are mentally ill and some are addicted. But the simple truth from the state’s own research tells us that no one can survive — just survive — on $10.10 an hour. Not even if they are working two jobs.
Both the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) and the Aloha United Way ALICE report make it very clear that nearly half the state lives in, or near, poverty. They cannot make ends meet. To survive, a single person needs to be paid a minimum of $17 an hour. To expect them to manage somehow without a living wage is magical thinking.
It’s more magical thinking to think that if the hourly wage goes up to $13 an hour by 2024, our workers will manage. Somehow our low-income workers will do what none of us can: make that $10.10 or even $13 an hour pay for rent and groceries and the essentials of living?
The recess has given the Legislature the benefit of stepping back and surveying the suffering exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. It should see what every one of us sees: our indebtedness to the least among us. It isn’t pious to insist on a living wage; it is pragmatic.
A coalition of nonprofits has identified priorities to make sure that federal funds coming our way are used to ensure that the “basic needs of our citizens are taken care of.” The nonprofits call for funding for emergency food systems like food banks and senior/child meals and aid to those at risk of losing their housing. They also call for a stronger moratorium on evictions and foreclosures so as to keep more people from becoming houseless.
The legislative recess should not paralyze us. Instead, let’s reaffirm our commitment to putting people first as we frame public policy.
Dawn Morais Webster, who advocates with nonprofits on societal issues, is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.