• Dan Connors

Losing friends, healthcare, income and identity- what can we do about unemployment?

You know that feeling most of us have these days of fear, uncertainty, and worry? For many of us that feeling will eventually end, thank goodness, once this pandemic runs its course. But for others those feelings will continue into next year and beyond, causing lasting damage to both mental and physical health for entire families.

I'm talking about unemployment, the scourge that accompanies recessions as jobs disappear and businesses tighten spending. Economists are predicting a possible severe recession for 2020, with unemployment possibly reaching 30% levels not seen since the 1930's. As someone who has been through periods of unemployment himself, I can attest to it's devastating toll both financially and mentally. Not only do you lose your livelihood, you also lose your health insurance, your identity, and the circle of colleagues who acted as a support system.

I recently read the book Tightrope, by Nicholas Kristof, and it paints a vivid and depressing picture of the misery that unemployment has caused in rural and urban areas the past few decades. The loss of jobs for long periods of time often leads to increased substance abuse, which leads to jail time, making people unemployable forever. It breaks up families, increases suicide rates, and leads to actual brain damage due to the increase in stress and cortisol levels, both in parents and their young children.

It doesn't have to be this way. In the United Kingdom currently, workers are guaranteed their jobs and health insurance, and the government is paying employers so that workers can get up to 80% of their previous salary. Other developed countries are following suit. This way, once the pandemic is over companies are ready to resume activity. Damage to families is minimized and companies don't have to locate and retrain entire staffs.

While the US has improved its unemployment system with temporary payments, our system is ill-prepared for crises like this, with state unemployment systems going down and asking people to file based on alphabetical order. You can't even go to the offices in person during this crisis, and good luck talking to someone on the phone.

I encourage employers all over the St. Louis area to consider ways to keep employees on, even if with temporary furloughs, doing their best to guarantee employment and bring hope to people that have kept them in business up until now. I know in some cases that's impossible, but treating your employees with compassion and dignity pays off big time when things get better again.

We need more employers like Enterprise, who temporarily laid off many of its employees but kept them on health insurance, and fewer like Hobby Lobby, who terminated their employees by email with no insurance and no severance.

For those who've been cut loose, I encourage them to hang in there and apply for all the help there is- Marketplace health insurance, unemployment benefits, loan and rent accommodations, and whatever they can find. There's no shame in getting help during a pandemic. The goal now should be to stay alive and healthy. The outpouring of kindness and civic pride we've seen in the past few weeks is inspiring.

The rescue packages passed by congress in March are a mixed bag of handouts and temporary fixes, but much more will need to be done in months ahead to minimize unemployment. One of the best things that they included is the Paycheck Protection Program through the Small Business Administration. All area employers need to look at these loans as they are forgivable if used to retain employees.

Going forward, much more will need to be done to stave off the cascade of problems stemming from unemployment, and there will be much resistance given our nation's past aversion to government solutions to business or personal problems. Do we want to pinch pennies now or pay more for prisons, health care, drug programs, and welfare a decade from now?

This could be the number one issue in November's elections. If we want a healthy nation, we need to keep up with social distancing. If we want to minimize damage from unemployment and a recession going forward, we need to take care of our workers, even if that involves temporary government jobs, extended wage supplements, or whatever it takes. They are worth it.


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