By MRUNMAYI JOSHI, junior, and ARYAN KHONDE, senior
OVER THE PAST few months of the COVID-19 crisis gripping both the United States and the world at large, measures such as social distancing and self-quarantining for sick individuals have been instituted by most authorities. To prevent the spread of the virus, it has become necessary for most businesses to send their employees home, either leaving them to perform their functions from home if possible or dismissing them outright if their tasks cannot be performed remotely. Additionally, the massive loss in revenue for several companies and business owners has forced them to severely curtail their workforces. These measures combined have resulted in mass unemployment at a scale unseen since the Great Depression. The people who are hardest-hit by COVID-19 are those who have always been the most vulnerable to an economic crisis, such as gig workers and individuals who live paycheck to paycheck. Stimulus payments have been slow in arriving and not plentiful enough for many, and these times have clearly exposed the chasm between the rich and poor in the U.S—the way to protect the most marginalized and economically vulnerable seems possible through a reopening of the economy.
The problem with closing down the economy in the technological era is that it disproportionately affects those who cannot afford it—the blue collar workers who remain the backbone of the American economy and industry. White-collar workers can conduct virtual Zoom meetings, but how can a grocery-bagger “work from home?” These jobs that require in-person work are often also the lowest-paid, meaning that those who cannot currently work are also those who need work the most. To make matters worse, the losses have primarily been in the retail, food, travel, and hospitality industries, areas where workers tend to make a minimum-wage salary and where most employees either lack a college education or are recent college graduates. As such, they may lack the experience and qualifications to quickly transition to a new, higher-paying industry at any time, let alone during a global recession. Additionally, there are hardly any other fields that are expanding rapidly enough to absorb this flood of people; although companies deemed essential, such as Walmart and Amazon, have added hundreds of thousands of jobs in this period of increased demand, this is not nearly enough to combat unemployment. One needs to look no farther than New Jersey itself. According to NJ.com, around 58,000 job openings for New Jerseyans have been posted by companies seeing increased demand. In New Jersey alone, more than 1.1 million people have filed for unemployment within the past two months. There is simply no way that these people can return to a secure life without the reopening of the economy; barely any employers are willing to run the risk of packing their plants and stores without the guarantee of revenue.
The other factor in the uncertainty that plagues the recently-unemployed is the insufficient distribution of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. In March, just after the lockdowns began, the United States Treasury declared that stimulus payments of $1,200 would be given to every American adult with an income of $75,000 or lower with an additional $500 for every dependent child under 16, according to the IRS. However, many of the 36.5 million unemployment claims as of May 15, according to CNBC, are not receiving unemployment benefits due to state coffers running dry and difficulties in procuring federal aid. In New Jersey, around 300,000 people, one-third of the total, have not received unemployment benefits, according to NJ.com. This means that the only paychecks some have received in ten weeks are the $1,200 stimulus checks. And in a country where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,216 as per Business Insider, one can imagine that the initial round of checks did not go very far. To be sure, many landlords have reduced the rent but cannot afford to cut their renters breaks. Yet the solution is not as simple as increasing the amount of money given to taxpayers. After all, this would run the risk of reducing the amount of federal money available for traditional unemployment benefits that would be given to individual states to distribute. Until the economy reopens, millions of people will inevitably fall through the cracks of this rapidly-assembled delivery system. Human life is far too invaluable for businesses to treat workers like some pawns, and workers need to have assurances in place in order for the system to work. Safety and getting back to work should not be treated as two mutually exclusive ideas; instead, we should be looking at the intersection of the two.
The pandemic caused by the SARSCoV-2 virus has efficiently dismantled most hallmarks of 21st-century life within a paltry few weeks. Many countries have watched in consternation at the handling of the pandemic in the United States. Several public health officials have made it clear that normal life will not return until a vaccine emerges, but keeping the economy closed is crushing small businesses and benefiting large corporations. With restrictions and measures such as masks and social distancing in place, the economy must be allowed to gradually reopen to stave off an economic crisis even worse than the current public health crisis.