The United States has 9.8 million fewer jobs than it had before the pandemic, and an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent — far above the 3.5 percent from a year earlier. Addressing those deficits is sure to be an important barometer by which the Biden administration will be judged early on.
But the public health crisis that caused the problems remains in its worst stretch yet, complicating attempts to address joblessness in industries that depend on face-to-face contact, such as tourism and hospitality, as well as food service establishments, including restaurants and bars, that have been hit the hardest.
“All the walls are caving in for restaurant workers, that’s really how it feels right now,” said John deBary, co-founder of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, an advocacy group.
The virus also has laid bare long-standing inequities in the economy that economists and advocates think could be improved through policy.
Unemployment rates remain significantly higher for Blacks and Latinos. Women have left the labor force at a much higher rate than men, reflecting in part a lack of child care after schools in many jurisdictions closed for in-person classes.
“We need a care-led recovery, and one that prioritizes unpaid care as well as paid care and the people who perform that care,” said Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. “And I would say first and foremost of that, and it would be quite revolutionary, would be to have in the U.S. universal free child care. It would revolutionize our workforce and make men and women workers more productive and enable them to enter the labor market — and stay in the labor market.”
As many as a quarter of workers lack sick pay — making the United States an outlier among developed and wealthy countries, and a public health vulnerability that has drawn particular criticism during the pandemic. The lack of laws requiring mandatory paid parental leave remains another issue where the United States lags behind other wealthy countries.
The minimum wage is likely to be a priority as well, as Biden has been vocal about his support for a $15 minimum. He could begin addressing the issue through the Labor Department’s oversight of the massive web of companies that contract for the federal government — requiring that they pay their workers $15 an hour, for example.
Democrats also have high hopes for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a broad bill to strengthen labor protections and union rights that the House passed last year.
The legislation would amend some of the country’s decades-old labor laws to give workers more power during disputes at work, add penalties for companies that retaliate against employees who organize and grant hundreds of thousands of workers collective-bargaining rights. It has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate, but could potentially find new life in the Democratic-led Senate.
A federal safety standard that workplaces will have to adhere to during the pandemic is likely to be at the top of the agenda for Biden’s Labor Department as well.
“As we build out of the pandemic, the question is going to be: Do we build toward a more equitable economy where workers have a voice, where they have leverage to get wage increases that are long overdue?” said Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute. “Or are we kind of returning to a system where you have low union coverage, very little worker voice, worker power, workers are not sharing in wage increases as productivity increases, and they’re working in unsafe conditions without many protections.”