Black families are navigating two public health crises in North Carolina: coronavirus and racial violence. Structural racism is rooted in the systems and policies that govern our nation. State-level data captured for North Carolina demonstrates Black workers experienced unemployment at a 40% higher rate than their white counterparts. As racial barriers to employment persist, we must fight to help working people by advocating for paid family and sick leave to advance the state of our economy.
For centuries, we have been dealing with racism that is deeply rooted in the criminal justice system and health care system and today, we are forced to navigate the disproportionate impacts from the current health pandemic. Coronavirus has only magnified the racial failures and inequalities our communities have been the victim of since we were bought to this country as slaves.
Whether you work at one of Charlotte’s banks or a local mom-and-pop shop, you should be able to take time off when you get sick. The ability to take time off is critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19, but it is also necessary for an individual’s health and safety. Unfortunately, the pandemic has shined a light on the deep disparity in access to fundamental workplace protections which are threatening the lives and livelihoods of residents of North Carolina and people of color.
I’m grateful to the essential workers in our state — from nurses and teachers to retail workers store clerks — who have kept our economy running during the pandemic. They are the cashier at the local grocery store, the bus driver, the nursing home employee, and the meatpacker. However, while we praise these workers and call them heroes for putting their lives on the line, they still lack critical protections to stay safe.
A new analysis from the National Partnership for Women & Families finds that 67% of North Carolina workers in frontline industries are women, and many have families to care for and cannot afford to miss a paycheck if they get sick. Moreover, Black workers make up a larger portion of these positions than white workers.
At the same time, we know that while Black people represent 22% of the population of our state, they represent 39% of the COVID-19 cases in North Carolina and 37% of the deaths. The death toll of Black Americans continues to grow twice as large as our white counterparts.
In the wake of COVID-19, Black Americans are intimately aware of the various disparities and it is our job as members of Congress and community leaders to recognize the need to learn from this moment. Racial disparities must be addressed — all workers, including our nation’s essential workers, deserve essential protections and benefits.
I was proud to join my colleagues in supporting the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act, which provided much-needed relief to North Carolina residents, workers, and businesses. The bills included expanded unemployment insurance, small-business recovery funds and direct payments that families have already started to receive. Importantly, the legislation also included proposals to provide paid sick leave and paid family leave to many workers so they don’t have to choose between their health and putting food on the table.
This was an important first step, but it still left gaps in coverage for too many. The reality is 84% of North Carolinians still lack paid sick days or paid family and medical leave protections.
I’ve personally seen the importance of providing access to paid leave. When we found out my daughter, who is an assistant principal at a school, had a heart condition, we were thankful that she could take time off from work to seek care. But not every family is as fortunate to be in this position. We must make sure every worker has access to these benefits to help build and maintain a secure, fair and inclusive workforce — during a crisis and beyond.
As the chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, I’ve long sought to address the paid leave crisis we are facing in this country. I was proud to see the full House of Representatives act to close gaps in paid leave coverage by passing the HEROES Act, which would expand paid emergency Family Medical Leave Act coverage to all workers, regardless of their employer’s size. The crisis has magnified the deep disparity in access to paid leave for women and people of color and it is one of the many lessons that my colleagues and I have taken to heart as we seek a more equitable society over the long term.
As North Carolina remains in the second phase of reopening businesses, we must learn from our successes in flattening the curve and make sure that when someone gets sick they are able to take time off work to avoid further spreading the virus. It is my hope that the Senate will act to make the gradual reopening of our economy as safe and effective as possible. This is a long-overdue step to strengthening our social safety net for Black and Brown workers and all Americans.
Congresswoman Alma Adams represents the 12th Congressional District of North Carolina.