The Urban League of Louisiana released Reform, Recover, Re-Open: Essential Strategies for an Equitable COVID-19 Response in Louisiana to help guide efforts to increase the health and safety of the most vulnerable citizens and workers as leaders contemplate re-opening local economies.
As most disasters have in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified generational inequities and disparities that have left poor, working class and African-American communities suffering disproportionately in ways that include, but reach far wider than, what the COVID-19 infection and death data shows. According to PolicyLink, data shows that more than 100 million people in the U.S., most of whom are people of color, have struggled to make ends meet even before this pandemic. National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said “the virus has put racial and economic inequities in the spotlight, of which we cannot ignore.” He is correct. As we begin to consider re-opening our economy, it is important that our collective conversations, first and foremost, focus on the health, safety and wellness of all people, but especially those in our most vulnerable communities.
“We applaud the leadership of our State and local officials in their response to this pandemic, and urge them to continue to place health above all,” said Judy Reese Morse, President and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana. “We should not look past the medical data, advice and best practices to prematurely re-open an economy to risk a resurgence of what we’ve seen over the last six weeks. Admittedly, the economy has and will suffer, but what good does it serve us to reopen New Orleans and Louisiana at the risk of losing her soul — our elders, our frontline workers, our culture-bearers, our health professionals.”
We especially applaud Governor John Bel Edwards, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and their respective teams for transparency and access to data that has illuminated the disproportionate impact this virus and long-term inequities are having on black and poor communities in Louisiana today. Whenever our economy re-opens, we cannot fully heal from this pandemic without delivering reforms that can ensure safety, equity, and improved health outcomes and economic productivity for all of us. The date is not important — the deliverables are. This crisis calls for a coordinated response from our public servants at every level that addresses both near- and long-term challenges. Below are strategic public health and security actions that must be considered before Louisiana’s most vulnerable citizens are subjected to the present dangers of COVID-19.
Public Health Security
- Employees and students should receive the protections of a Citizens Bill of Rights before returning to work and school. We encourage our City and School Board public servants to develop policies that ensure that businesses, schools, property owners and transportation operators promote the health, safety and security of all residents through:
- Temperature check for all access points;
- Robust daily sanitation and disease prevention plans;
- Adequate daily supply of PPE equipment for all workers and children;
- Access to testing and pathways to doctors if sick, without penalty or threat of job security; and
- Other health equity protection plans.
- Rental and utility assistance programs should continue and expand for renters and landlords during this unprecedented time. This should not be the time that a renter should have to decide how they can keep a roof over their family’s heads. Likewise, landlords must also support their families, and they often do so through rental income. We call upon our State and City public servants to allocate existing or new funds to support renters and landlords until we have all weathered this pandemic.
- We must invest in fresh food initiatives to address food insecurities in marginalized communities. Our cities have many neighborhoods where citizens have limited access to grocery stores and fresh foods, coupled with transit restrictions. With a population just over 1.2 million in the New Orleans metropolitan area, 500,000 people live in a food desert. We call on our State and City leaders to work with Federal leaders to include Louisiana as part of the pilot program that immediately allows SNAP and WIC recipients to include use of SNAP benefits for hot meals, prepared delivery meals, and online grocery delivery orders.
- Workers who are incurring some amount of unavoidable risk from COVID-19 deserve additional hazard pay. Workers from communities of color are significantly more likely to earn income from jobs that cannot be performed remotely and where social distancing is not possible. Current national research indicates that 41 percent of frontline workers are people of color. Of those frontline workers, 45 percent of public transit workers, 57 percent of building cleaning service workers and 40 percent of healthcare workers are people of color. People of color are also disproportionately represented in delivery and childcare services, and approximately one third of frontline workers are members of low-income households. All of these factors leave them more likely to be exposed to the disparate outcomes that already threaten them. We call on our State’s Federal Delegation, with the support and backing of local elected officials, to request the federal government to cover hazard pay for Louisiana’s frontline workers to ensure that they earn the money they need to keep themselves and their families safe.
- We must increase minimum wage to increase the community’s purchasing power. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of our working class to our economy. It will be magnified even more when we emerge without the benefit of tourists immediately supporting our local businesses, restaurants and hotels. The working class are not only our frontline workers, they will be an integral component of the City’s purchasing power during this rebound period. We call on our State Legislative Delegation, with the support and backing of local elected officials, to aggressively advocate at the State Legislature to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 on July 1, 2021 with annual increases by one dollar until reaching $15 in the year 2027.
- We must be honest and relentless in our commitment to develop small businesses. Our City and State will never reach its full potential until we ensure that small businesses receive meaningful opportunities. Many small businesses have been left out of emergency procurement opportunities during the pandemic that would have allowed them to stay viable and keep others employed. Opportunities are ripe to support small businesses in exploring and scaling up for new market needs in manufacturing, environmental and industrial services (i.e. sanitization) and water management. We call on local, state and federal elected representatives to develop programs and seek funding to connect existing and new businesses to procurement opportunities, including emergency opportunities, and provide on-ramps that allow small businesses to pivot and develop workforce development programs. Larger businesses and property owners should receive ad valorem tax incentives for their support of these necessary programs and initiatives during the rebound period for local economies.
- We must lean on innovation to equitably spur our cultural economy. Even when we re-open the City’s economy, it will not be what it was when most of us were forced to shelter in our homes. Tourists will not immediately attend sporting events and conferences will not immediately be able to return. Festivals will not be able to plug-in and pick up where they left off. Tourists who love to visit New Orleans and Louisiana are captivated by our hospitality and our culture — and in order to ensure that our culture and hospitality live on, we must prioritize and protect those who make it come alive. We call on our tourism and hospitality leaders and stakeholders to ensure that our culture-bearers and hospitality workers are central to all discussions about the development of a sustainable and equitable tourism pivot strategy.
We know that with disaster comes opportunity. Historically, our community has not had the chance to benefit fully from those recovery opportunities. Our community learned a great deal during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about what it means to suffer from the disaster but not benefit from the opportunities that followed. We now know better. We now understand that, collectively, our community is the fuel that keeps the engine going. Ensuring the investments that increase health, safety and wellness of the most vulnerable in our state is essential to any effort to open the economy as residents and workers continue to be subject to the dangers of COVID-19.
In addition to advocating for these priorities, the Urban League of Louisiana will continue its statewide engagement efforts to hear from and learn new ways individual communities can use support.
The public is invited to join the Urban League of Louisiana and the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus for a 4-part Tele Town Hall Series, “From Disparity to Parity: Examining Social Determinants of African American Health” April 27, 28, 29 and 30, 2020. To register, visit www.urbanleaguela.org/disparity-parity.