The outbreak of COVID-19 in Washington state has rightfully drawn attention to the crucial role that our taxpayer-funded public health system plays in supporting community health and preventing the spread of contagious diseases. During this time, it is also crucial that lawmakers consider the importance of economic security in shaping people’s ability to follow public health recommendations and weather this public health crisis.
People with low wages are on the frontlines of responding to the outbreak and bear the brunt of the economic impacts of COVID-19 as events are cancelled and more people follow public health recommendations to stay home. Health and long-term care workers, janitors, food service workers, child care workers, gig workers, and others are critical to supporting our communities during the outbreak – yet these workers too often are struggling economically and are left without basic protections, paid sick leave, or affordable health care. Communities of color are also especially impacted given the unjust concentration of people of color working low-wage jobs and the reported xenophobic drop in consumer spending on businesses operated by people of Asian descent.
At the epicenter of the United States COVID-19 outbreak, Washington state officials have already taken steps to mitigate the outbreak and support the economic security of those affected. Elected leaders must take additional steps and make long–term investments and structural changes to support community health and economic security moving forward.
Lawmakers and state officials are already making smart economic policy and budget decisions that will enable people to protect community health by:
- Extending health care and income replacement to frontline healthcare workers and other first responders subject to quarantine in the COVID-19 outbreak through our state’s workers’ compensation program. This will help workers support themselves and their families while out of work and prevent further spread of the disease.
- Requiring Washington state health insurers to waive copays and deductibles for coronavirus testing. Reducing financial barriers to health care during the outbreak will ensure more people can access the care they need and help the state better track the outbreak.
- Allocating $100 million in additional resources to state and local agencies to prepare for and respond to the outbreak. Given the immediate need for resources, lawmakers responsibly made use of the state’s rainy day fund. The additional money will help officials respond to the outbreak without jeopardizing commitments lawmakers made to fund important priorities like early learning and homelessness prevention.
In order to protect public health and ease the economic impact of COVID-19 on low-income Washingtonians over the long term, our state leaders should also consider:
- Expanding labor protections like paid sick leave and health care to more Washington workers. Too many Washingtonians are already experiencing economic insecurity and cannot pay for an emergency or recover from lost wages. Our state is ahead of the curve by mandating statewide paid sick leave and creating a paid family and medical leave program before the outbreak, but many workers – especially those who are part of the gig economy – still are not eligible for the same protections. This leaves many workers with an impossible choice: go to work and risk exposing others, or lose pay, healthcare coverage, and even your job. Our state leaders should extend existing protections, and create new protections, to make sure that every worker in Washington state has access to paid sick leave and health care coverage.
- Boosting economic security programs to help households weather losses of income. State leaders need to act quickly to provide income supports to households that are losing wages as a result of the direct impact of COVID-19 or indirectly as a result of reduced consumer spending. Programs like WorkFirst, our state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, can help families with low incomes cover the basics in times of financial crisis and could be bolstered immediately. Leaders should also explore jumpstarting our state’s Working Families Tax Credit (our state’s version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit) to boost incomes for Washingtonians who work hard for low wages, as well as those who do vital, but unpaid, work.
- Raising progressive revenue to fund immediate needs and avoid pitting public health funding against other important investments that promote community health, while also replenishing the rainy day fund to ensure resources are available to respond to a drop in state revenues resulting from an economic downturn. Our state’s regressive tax code prevents lawmakers from having enough revenue to fund the immediate needs of communities across the state, as well as save for future crises. Closing the loophole on capital gains would be one way to raise more resources for the state to respond adequately to future threats while also protecting safety net programs.
- Creating processes that allow for community input, especially when making decisions that impact communities targeted for disinvestment. While there is a need to take immediate action to curb the spread of COVID-19, legislators must ensure communities are consulted before making important decisions about funding and resource allocation or making decisions made during emergency response permanent.
Investing in economic security – now and in the future – is fundamental to protecting community health.