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Let’s celebrate working people by unrigging the economy

Hannah Halbert and Michael Shields

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Photo Credit: University Hospitals

This Labor Day will be different. If they happen at all, most parades and cookouts will be smaller and socially distanced. One way we’ll celebrate, though, is by reflecting on the incredible acts of selflessness and generosity performed by Ohio’s working people during this pandemic — from the ICU nurse in Cleveland tending to a patient gravely ill with COVID-19, to the janitor in Cincinnati taking extra care to keep the building safe and clean, to the meatpacking workers in Columbiana County making sure we have food to eat despite the high risk of their job.

On Labor Day, we honor the gains working people have fought for and achieved, like the 40-hour work-week and protections against child labor — things we too often take for granted. But today, many working Ohioans are risking their health to keep the economy going, even though they aren’t paid enough for the work they do. For too many, their employers can disregard health protocols with no consequences. Many others have been laid off, and found state and federal leaders unwilling to help them make ends meet. Some Ohioans have the relative safety of working from home, but as the months drag on and the pandemic continues to sweep the state and nation, the demands of juggling work with child care and virtual in-home schooling are disrupting the long-term career paths of working parents, especially women.

So this Labor Day has to be about much more than reflection. It’s time to chart a policy course that will reset and unrig the economy so all working people share in the prosperity their work creates.

The COVID-19 pandemic and gruesome acts of violence against Black people are laying bare the consequences of centuries of racist policy choices. Since the beginning, the wealthy and powerful few have used race to divide people and exploit their labor.

Fifty-six years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Black workers were 81% more likely to need unemployment compensation last year, and COVID pushed that up to 160% in June. Decades of attacks on workers’ bargaining power pushed Black workers’ wages down $1.71 per hour since 1979, in 2019 dollars. Black Ohioans today are paid less than and are more likely to be in jobs that expose them to COVID-19 than their white counterparts, many of whom are also struggling to make any real gain in this economy.

Before COVID-19 struck, working Ohioans were producing record wealth, but the wealthiest captured most of the gains: On average a person in the highest-paid 10% of workers took in 30.6% more in 2019 than they did in 1979. The worker in the middle gained just 3.9% and the bottom 10th 1.6%, over the last 40 years.

The necessary public health response to the pandemic forced more than 1 million Ohioans out of work this spring. Half-a-million were still out by July. Ohioans turned to credit cards, drew down savings or sold assets, and borrowed from friends and family to get by. The governor deployed 600 Ohio National Guard and Military Reservists to help Ohio food banks distribute food.

Employers called 70% fewer worker back to the job in July than they did in June. That could spell a long recession: one that will be made worse if our leaders refuse to marshal our public resources to restore economic health for everyone. That needs to start with Congressional action restoring the $600-per-week federal payment to unemployed Ohioans. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that payment was supporting 130,000 Ohio jobs. The temporary $300 assistance from the Trump administration falls short, will take weeks to set up, and relies on disaster relief funds that will quickly dry up.

Unrigging the economy requires state action, too. The policies, investments, and protections Ohio legislators could make today could and should set us up for a reset, not another squandered recovery. Fund and fix Ohio’s UI system, which currently excludes the lowest-paid. Restore the 40-hour work week by reinstating the overtime rule abandoned by the Trump administration. Pass a $15 per hour minimum wage that meets the cost of living. Enforce the laws we have to stop employers stealing from workers. And protect collective bargaining and workers’ voice on the job.

To get through the crisis and thrive, Ohioans need policymakers that put them first with policies that recognize the dignity of work and affirm the value of all Ohioans. With that commitment, Ohioans can attain the recovery and future they deserve.


Hannah Halbert is the Executive Director of Policy Matters Ohio. She joined Policy Matters in 2010 as a policy liaison. She had previously spent nearly four years with the Equal Justice Foundation and the Legal Aid Society of Columbus where she protected homeowners from foreclosures during the housing crisis. Before becoming executive director of Policy Matters, Halbert was named project director in 2018, overseeing work and wages research. Halbert also serves on the board of the Central Ohio Worker Center and the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations. Halbert has a master’s in nonprofit management, a law degree from Hamline University and a bachelor’s degree from Transylvania University.

Michael Shields is a researcher with Policy Matters Ohio. His work focuses on the labor market and job quality. He writes about wages, overtime, wage theft, workers’ compensation, manufacturing, and collateral sanctions.

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