Before the coronavirus pandemic, our capitalist system relied on a generous supply of American workers willing and able to put in full-time hours. But with a declining birth rate, increases in early retirement, millions of women still out of the workforce and the deaths of more than 862,000 people in America — a result of a population ravaged by COVID-19 — the United States needs to get creative to stay operational.
There are two solutions: attract more immigrants and institutionalize flexible work arrangements, especially for older Americans who aren’t ready or able to leave their jobs.
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Unfortunately, politicians and employers have shown reluctance to embrace these common-sense solutions. Despite promises to make sweeping changes to US immigration policy, President Joe Biden has been unwilling or unable to roll back most of the extreme anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration. To be fair, in the cases where Biden and his team have tried to make some changes, they have been ordered by Republican-appointed judges to reimpose these policies, as in the case of the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
In the workplace, some employers have refused to institute flexible work policies, leading to employee pushback on calls to return to the office. Additionally, last summer, governors in 26 states — all but Louisiana led by Republicans — ended extra unemployment benefits from the American Rescue Plan two to three months earlier than federally required, with some explicitly stating that the unemployed are “lazy” and wanting to collect government benefits. Governor Mike Parson of Missouri said in May 2021 that continuing these unemployment programs “only worsens the workforce issues we’re currently facing. It’s time that we end these programs that have incentivized people to stay out of the workforce.”
However, with the US averaging around 700,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 each day over the last week, the pandemic is far from over. American families are at their breaking point. Rather than relying on outdated racist and classist ideas about immigration and government support for families, politicians and employers wanting to stimulate the economy should focus on creative solutions to what is clearly an unprecedented crisis. ]
One solution is to build on the existing labor force by welcoming more immigrant workers and providing better benefits for their labor. While immigrants continue to be employed at a higher rate than those who are US-born, they make up just over one-sixth of the total US labor force. Immigrants have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic working as essential workers at all levels. But at the same time, many immigrants, particularly Asian, faced increased racism during the early days of the pandemic.
Politicians and the American public alike often invoke the idea that we are a “nation of immigrants.” While some might argue that we never have been, immigrants are an important part of American society and deserve better opportunities and benefits available to them.
Many immigrants in the US are not eligible for unemployment benefits, which makes them more vulnerable. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that at least 6 million immigrants work in industries hardest hit during the pandemic. Additionally, immigrant families have a higher risk of being food insecure. Thus, while immigrants take care of us, we do not return the favor.
The early retirements of older workers are more likely tied to concerns about health and safety around COVID-19 and an increasing desire for remote work, yet many are not prepared financially for retirement. It would not be surprising if many returned to the workforce, at least part-time, at some point in the coming years.
Industries, corporations, foundations and employers would be wise to recruit retirees, even for part-time positions. The older population has a wealth of experience, knowledge and the aptitude to mentor younger workers and immigrants. For example, in one study of retired surgeons, more than half of participants were interested in serving as mentors to new surgeons and most were willing to do so even without compensation. Similarly, for teachers, mentoring is a valuable experience for both retirees and new teachers.
To be sure, attracting immigrant workers by offering competitive salaries and benefits, and meeting workers’ need for flexible work arrangements might require employers to temporarily cut back on profits. However, making these investments in workers would show that employers are forward-thinking and respect their contributions.
With slowing US population growth, employers will have a smaller pool of potential employees and will therefore need to offer better working conditions to attract workers. Additionally, 2021 saw American workers striking and unionizing with rates not seen in decades, with some attributing this, in part, to pandemic working conditions. In short, employers can create better working conditions by choice or by force.
Politicians could ease the burden on companies by incentivizing flexible working policies and making it easier for Americans to combine work and family. But — even better — they could ease the burden on workers by providing direct support through paid leave, housing support, universal health care and other programs that would allow for a better quality of life for Americans. These supports would also make part-time work a more realistic option and empower families to make their own decisions about how best to combine work and family at any age.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us as individuals and as a society. We cannot simply “get back to normal” despite calls from politicians and CEOs to do so. After all, the US alone will likely reach 1 million COVID-19 deaths in the months to come.
If politicians and employers want to stay operational, we must take this chance to reimagine our society. This means putting people over profits and creating workplaces that are responsive to the needs of people and their whole selves.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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