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Focus on helping communities from the statehouse

PrintIn November, Maryland experienced its largest surge in COVID infections since March. State and local government officials issued renewed restrictions on business hours and urged residents to remain vigilant with mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing. Maryland has surpassed 5,500 coronavirus-related deaths.

Indeed, the pandemic is particularly unforgiving to marginalized communities. In Maryland, Black residents make up 30% of Maryland’s population, but represent 41% of COVID-related deaths and 60% of confirmed cases.

The pandemic continues to produce devastating effects for workers and families. Pre-pandemic structural inequalities in employment, housing, food security, internet access and corrections, notably pretrial detention, have been laid bare and particularly pronounced in communities of color.

Nationally, 58% of Black and 58% of Latino households do not have enough income to cover three months of expenses without income, in contrast to 29% of white households. In Maryland, the Black unemployment rate (6.1%) is higher than the state average of 2.3%.

The Fair Housing Action Center indicated that of the 379 Maryland households seeking eviction prevention assistance, 75% were Black households. The Maryland Hunger Solutions reported a 400% increase in SNAP applications since the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year with approximately 800,000 Marylanders, about 14% of the population, currently relying on SNAP. In Baltimore, SNAP beneficiaries represent 24.5% of the population.

As we moved virtual, the digital divide continued to alienate urban and rural communities. A 2020 report from the Abell Foundation found that about 40.7% of Baltimore households lack a wireline internet service (such as cable, fiber, or digital subscriber line service) at home.

The “essential” or frontline workforce, particularly cashiers and workers in health care, food service, sanitation and warehousing, quickly emerged as a priority when the pandemic hit. Yet the unfortunate common denominator between frontline workers across different industries is the necessity of their physical presence to respond to immediate needs as many essential workers do not have the privilege to work remotely. While these jobs are of vital importance, they are also some of the lowest-paying occupations.

Similarly, small businesses, particularly minority-owned businesses, have been the hardest hit by COVID-19. Historically, these businesses have less access to credit and are less able to withstand the loss of income.

The Maryland General Assembly will soon convene for its annual 90-day legislative session and it is tasked with identifying solutions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on Maryland families where our current policies and practices have proven insufficient. This session, the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF) hopes to see our community’s interests represented in the following ways:

  • The state legislature should prioritize passage of the Maryland Essential Workers Protection Act that will require employers to provide workers with safe and hygienic workspaces, personal protective equipment, emergency pandemic action plans, free COVID testing and hazard pay and add provisions to the existing Maryland Healthy Working Families Act (MHWFA) that would expand coverage of the law during a public health emergency and ensure coverage for those workers hardest hit by COVID (e.g. agricultural workers, temporary workers). Maryland laws to ensure worker supports and benefits are insufficient to protect workers in times of need, especially a public health emergency.
  • Robust investments should be made in effective, outcomes-driven job skills training and intensive barrier elimination to support the training, employment and retention of low-income workers in existing and emerging industries that have surfaced in response to COVID. This includes increased investments in our state Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN) program and expanding diminution credits for inmates who secure educational and occupational certifications to facilitate their successful reentry.
  • Expand efforts to eliminate the digital divide for older youth and adult workers by creating a statewide public broadband service that can compete with the large private companies in the state.
  • Accelerate efforts to decriminalize poverty and race by prioritizing reductions to our pretrial, local jail and prison populations, safely and expeditiously, in a pandemic where social distancing is highly encouraged and many times required; requiring “ability to pay” determinations when an individual’s freedom is at stake; continuing efforts to reduce reliance on cash bail and eliminate costly home detention fees in pretrial; eliminate revenue-generating but predatory criminal justice fines and fees and barriers to criminal record expungement.

The abrupt end to the 2020 session left businesses and workers in a vulnerable position as the pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. When the state legislature reconvenes we hope that equal attention and priority is given to both business and workers, particularly the essential/frontline workers who made our lives a little easier while we navigated the early days of the pandemic safely in our homes.

Equal priority must be given to investments in businesses that are struggling to survive given pandemic related restrictions, and in workers who have lost their job or must risk their health at a job that never paid enough.

This article is featured in The Daily Record's Eye on Annapolis Summit.

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