Trumka on the Unemployment Crisis and the Practical Solutions to Support Workers

Good afternoon. And thank you for tuning in. I am Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. We’re 12.5 million members proud and 55 unions strong.

I grew up in a coal town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Losing a job was something my parents feared, our neighbors feared, our entire community feared. Today, that fear has become reality for tens of millions of people across the country. The coronavirus crisis has torn through our nation. It’s turned our world upside down.

It didn't have to be this way. Years of weakening our public health system and months of ignoring warnings have left us here. As the death toll continues to climb, as hospitals are being pushed to the brink, as workers sacrifice and serve on the frontlines, we can’t forget that millions of hard-working people have been forced to the sidelines. Out of work through no fault of your own. Before COVID-19 hit, seven million of you were already unemployed. In just the past seven weeks, over 33 million more of you have lost a job. Studies show that for every 10 people who successfully file for unemployment, another three or four can’t get through. And two more don’t even try. So it’s likely that 50 million people are currently out of a job. That’s a quarter of the workforce.

If we don’t act, we’ll be inviting a second Great Depression. Working people will suffer in a way we haven't seen in our lifetime. Our economy will come apart. Because nothing works when we aren't working. Already, more than twelve million of you have lost your health insurance when you lost your jobs. Tens of millions more could be next. And many of you who are suddenly uninsured won’t qualify for existing programs like Medicaid. Think about that. Losing health care in the middle of a recession is bad enough. But in the middle of a global pandemic with no end in sight? It’s criminal. We have to do something.

Let’s learn the lessons of the past decade. Let’s learn the lessons from just this past month. We know what doesn’t work. There are people in Congress who think the solution is to let cities and states collapse under the pressure of the virus. But the Great Recession taught us that cutting state and local budgets isn’t the answer. Despite what Mitch McConnell thinks, letting state and local governments go bankrupt is not a solution – it’s a scam. Forcing first responders, teachers and other public service workers into unemployment is a drag on our economy. And because of the vital work they do, it’s a danger to all of us. How on earth will we beat this virus without them?

We should also learn a lesson from the first chapter of this current crisis: health and safety must come first. Let's remember why we all shut everything down in the first place: to give our overburdened health care system time and space to help those who need it, and to keep new cases to a minimum. If we open before we’re ready, if we open because we’re impatient, if we send our workers into unsafe workplaces and send consumers into unsafe communities, we will not be reopening a healthy economy. We will be reopening an economic wound. And we will make it that much harder to heal down the road. Impatience and imprudence will create a catastrophe of sickness, joblessness and economic collapse. We can see the iceberg coming. Now is our chance to steer out of the way.

There are a lot of terrible words to describe what is happening: the worst, the hardest, the deadliest, and so on. But this is not a time for hyperbole. It’s a time for humanity.

Behind America’s tragic unemployment numbers are real people. People like Suzie Wilson, a member of UNITE HERE from Philadelphia. For 20 years she worked as a housekeeper and cook. Every morning, she woke up at 5:15 and took two buses to make her 7 a.m. shift as a restaurant prep cook. Suzie has worked all her life. She’s been chasing the idea of a better life. She’s done everything asked of her. And then, one morning in March, she woke up with no job and no health care. Instead of being protected by a safety net, she’s caught in credit card debt, racking up fees just to afford food until she can get some unemployment support. Suzie didn’t do anything wrong. Why are we treating her, and the millions like her, this way?

And what about Shirley Thomas, an AFSCME member in Florida? She’s been a public-school custodian for over 19 years. This whole time, her motivation has stayed the same: she loves being around students. She treats them like her own, with care and love. She took pride in keeping the classrooms, bathrooms and cafeteria clean so her students could keep on learning and growing. Last month, school was canceled and she was furloughed. There is no telling when or if she will get to go back to work. That has had a dangerous ripple effect. After all, Shirley is the head of her household. She’s not the only one who depends on that paycheck. It provides for her two daughters, her sister and her brother, who is recovering from a stroke. Without income, Shirley doesn’t know how she’ll be able to gas up the car and take her brother to the doctor. She’s also making personal sacrifices that are unfathomable. That none of us would want to make. That no one in this country should ever have to make. Shirley is diabetic. Without health care, her medications are so expensive that she’s rationing what she has left. She’s even canceled a procedure to remove a blood clot. Here’s how Shirley put it: “My job gave me stability to take care of my kids. It gave me stability knowing that I would be able to retire. Overnight that stability is gone, but I will continue to live by prayer.”

Shirley, we’re praying for you. But we’re also fighting for you. Nobody should be living by a prayer or hanging by a thread. Where is our sense of solidarity for Shirley and Suzie and the millions who have lost a job?

These days will likely be the greatest test of our lifetime. So I want to call on us, the employed and the jobless, the insured and the uninsured, those suffering at home and those risking everything on the frontlines, to come together as one. One family. One nation. One purpose.

If we don’t look out for our neighbors, we all fail. We all suffer. And we cannot expect to recover. If we continue on this current path, if we get impatient, if we think enough has been done already, we will soon pass a point of no return.

Our federal government, our Congress must act – swiftly, boldly and if necessary, electronically.

Here’s my message to Congress: You have two main jobs right now – keep people on payrolls and keep people safe and alive. End the pandemic politics – now.

Don’t tell us this is about the national debt. We are worried about our lives and livelihoods.

Don’t tell us we should wait a little longer for unemployment benefits we earned or health insurance we deserve. We have waited long enough. Don’t tell us we should sacrifice our pension. We earned that.

Don’t tell us states should go bankrupt or that federal relief is a blue state bailout. We are all vulnerable.

Here is the good news: there are practical solutions on the table. We can use federal funding to keep people employed and guarantee everyone’s paycheck for the duration of the crisis. This concept is neither new nor radical. It’s been done before. Employers that have to lay off workers or shut down can certify their payrolls to the federal government. The government pays for the employer to pay their employees. No money goes to CEOs or to Wall Street — just to workers.

Payroll support has been endorsed across the political spectrum, from Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It’s supported by Alabama’s Doug Jones and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. And it’s gaining traction among both business and labor. Yes, we must work out the details. But that’s what governing is. What better time to put aside party labels and do what is necessary to keep America whole?

Trust me, every worker would rather receive a paycheck than an unemployment check. But that’s not all we want. Our jobs are a source of dignity. A piece of our pride. We are ready to get back to work. We are ready to rebuild America – a nation built by unions. We’ve made this country better, and we’re going to do it again.

We are not holding out hope for a return to normal. Workers know “normal” wasn’t working for us. COVID-19 exposed the cracks already in our system. Now, now is our moment. To do more. To be more. To expect more.

We all need to stand together.

Whether you have a job or you are out of work. Whether you are in a union or not.

America’s labor movement is ready to do the hard work of winning a better day.

May God shed His grace on the sick and the suffering. And may God bless you. Thank you.