With Illinois poised to enter Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” re-opening plan, COVID-19 has exposed the state’s structural economic and public health inequities. Essential and face-to-face workers who were most affected by Illinois’ efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic also have lower wages, suffer from higher job volatility, and are more likely to be people of color. That’s the takeaway from a recent report authored jointly by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Workers deemed “essential” in Governor Pritzker’s initial stay-at-home order– including registered nurses, firefighters, construction workers, and delivery drivers– account for 51% of Illinois’ workforce. Workers in “face-to-face” sectors of the economy, like bars, gyms, and hair salons, comprise another 27% Illinois’ labor market. Those who could do their work remotely make up the remaining 22%.
However, both essential and face-to-face workers suffer from pay penalties. An essential worker with the same education who is the same age and even works in the same city as his neighbor who works remotely earns, on average, 7 percent less in hourly earnings. Despite being considered essential, their pay does not currently reflect that status. And 44 percent of face-to-face workers earn less than $15 per hour.
Not only do face-to-face workers– who are disproportionately women and people of color– earn low incomes, they are the people who have been hit hardest by the state’s efforts to “flatten the curve.” While Illinois’ unemployment rate went from 3.8% before the pandemic to a historic 16.4%, the unemployment rate for face-to-face workers skyrocketed from just 4.5% to 34.6%. More than 480,000 face-to-face workers in Illinois, who are at the highest risk of being exposed to COVID-19, became newly unemployed in April and nearly 300,000 lost their employer-provided health insurance during the global public health crisis. In Phase 4, many of these workers can return to work.
Essential workers and face-to-face workers will be vital in the recovery from the COVID-19 recession. While remote workers will be asked to do their part and work from home for as long as possible to contain the virus and reduce the chances of a second wave, essential workers will be needed to repair critical infrastructure, improve Illinois’ health care system, and educate Illinois’ youth. Face-to-face workers will be asked to return to work and provide goods and services to consumers in Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” plan.
Working people and unions– 22% of all essential workers are union members– have propped up the economy and kept our communities functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. To support these everyday heroes, elected officials in Illinois should introduce hazard pay for essential frontline and face-to-face workers to close the pay gap and address structural economic inequities. Expanding paid sick and family leave would enable workers to care for themselves, their children, and their grandparents if they become exposed as the economy re-opens. A public health care option should be enacted so Illinois residents have health insurance coverage even if they lose their jobs. The state’s work-share program should be implemented to prevent further layoffs and lower costs for taxpayers. Finally, collective bargaining rights should be strengthened and expanded to protect workers’ rights and rebuild the middle class. By enacting good public policies, Illinois can ensure a broad-based recovery from the COVID-19 economic recession.